Monday, December 8, 2014

The Church 5: Western Christians in a Post-Christian Culture—Merry Christmas!

The Church 5: Western Christians in a Post-Christian Culture—Merry Christmas!


This brief reflection on a major issue is meant to stir some discussion: I truly hope it brings some change.  The larger issue is, “How are Christians to Live as Christians in a Post-Christian Culture?”  In order to offer a crisp reflection on an otherwise huge topic, I will focus this on the matter of Christmas.  And, Merry Christmas to all reading this post this month!  The subject of mission involves, among many other things, an understanding of the Church as a distinct entity—Christ-focussed—within a larger society that reaches out to that society.  A “Christian” holiday gets to the heart of such a matter.

The Present Post-Christian Situation

Living in England some years ago, we were amazed to find children in the local Church of England primary school who did not know what Easter was about and who were encouraged to practice Buddhist meditation as an exercise in the classroom for a religious education class.  I recently had a student ask, “What is ‘Post-Christian?’”—that is!  When vestiges of Christianity are more likely to show up in a history course—if even there—a once Christian society is post-Christian.  That no country can ever be said to be “Christian” is, in my view, an important caveat to this discussion and one that goes all the way back to St. Augustine’s City of God.  Still, Europe, and the countries it colonized, established an institutional relationship with churches such that Christianity was a powerful force within the culture.  We call it “Christendom,” and it is not a neutral story but a story of both great blessing and horrible abuse.  Laws were passed, hospitals and schools were established, Christian “holy days” were observed, and most people showed up for church services on Sunday morning if not other times during the week.  Marriage was a covenant relationship between a man and a woman, and people did not live together before marriage, were not sexually active until marriage, did not contemplate same-sex unions (let alone ‘marriages’), did not divorce—except as exceptions to the rule, and these rules were what the Church taught and the social institutions and laws of the country, to some extent, supported.

Again, this is not to say that the society really was Christian, or even that the institutions that supported the Church and its projects were Christian, or even, for that matter, that the institutional Church was itself Christian!  Frankly, there was a lot in Christendom that was not at all Christian.  However, whatever gains were made by the Church to overcome the pagan practices of pre-Christian Europe were gains made by persons seeking to establish a more Christian society.  And there, by the way, is a history lesson often missing from the classroom today because history is always written by the conquerors, and non-Christian society has, by and large, conquered the Church in Europe, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa today.

The Christianizing of Culture, and Christmas

We need to think a little about the Christianizing of culture before we think further about living as Christians in a post-Christian culture.  Christmas illustrates the point.  It was once an important day in pre-Christian Europe.  Coming just after the winter solstice, the actual day was associated with the god Mithras in Roman religion, a religion originating in what is today Iran.  In Roman practice, the holiday celebrated the rebirth of the sun-god after the shortest day of the year, and it involved giving gifts and feasting.  The priests carried wreaths made from evergreen boughs as they processed through the towns and villages during the festival.  The origin of the Christmas tree in Christian times in Germany may have something to do with sacred trees in German culture—proposals of its possible history can easily be accessed online.  With the “Christianization” of the Roman empire, beginning with the first Roman Emperor, Constantine, in 312, such practices needed to change.  It is one thing to pass a law against gladiatorial shows, slavery, or homosexual practice, but what can be done with holidays?  People do not easily give up their holidays!  So, this holiday became a Christian holy day, Christmas, the day of Christ’s birth.  He was not, of course, born on Christmas day—and we do not know on what day he was born (it would have been at a time of the year when shepherds could be in the fields in Israel, though!).

The De-Christianizing of Culture

In the West today, every holiday season associated with the Christian calendar ends up under attack, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes very intentionally.  Have you ever heard a Christmas song that incorporates Jesus and Santa Claus?  I have.  The Hallmark channel has worked hard to create a vision of Christmas that is all about love, Christmas decorations, and Santa Claus that often makes reasonable viewing for families but, in fact, more often than not excises Christ from Christmas.  This is a far more powerful instrument of de-Christianizing culture than the more aggressive forms, such as lawsuits against public nativity scenes, a governor lighting the “Holiday Tree” (“Christmas” is too Christian), and the like.  The effects of this are felt when the sales lady says, “Happy Holidays” to you, having been instructed to eliminate any Christian message from the season.

Living as Christians in a Post-Christian Culture

Christians are caught off guard in the West today, not knowing how to respond to all this.  One response is to fight back, figuratively speaking, trying to reclaim the Christian nation that some Christians imagine the country in which they live once was.  (Again, there is never such a thing as a Christian nation.  Do not imagine that prayers to an unknown God before a football game are in the slightest way Christian prayers and of any merit, for example!)  So they respond to the sales lady who wishes them “Happy Holidays” by saying “Merry Christmas!”  Another response is to accept the division between Church and society, and remove Christian presence from the public square altogether.  That may actually be an appropriate response in a time of intense persecution—we should not write it off altogether.  However, in the West today, the best approach is for Christians to learn how to be a minority witness within a larger society.

This means realizing that we are not the majority, and we are not going to force the rest of society to adopt our ways.  We are going to have to acknowledge that society has a different view of marriage from us, that we practice business differently and are not typical in how we conduct our affairs, that we use our time and resources differently, and so forth.  We are going to have to know who we are better than we have in the past, distinct from the larger society in many ways.  An example might come from some ethnic group in the larger society holding a festival in the city—like the Greek festival in Charlotte, North Carolina.  People attend the festival, listen to the Greek music, buy the Greek food, and some people visit the Greek Orthodox Church out of curiosity about what goes on inside.  People at the festival do not show up feeling threatened to become Greek, and so they feel free to explore what it means to be Greek.  Somehow, Christians need to celebrate their differences publicly without threatening the now pagan society around them.  They need to give up the notion that the end-goal is “Christendom” once again—a powerful take-over of pagan culture.  Unlike the Greek festival, they want to celebrate a way of life distinct from larger society that offers the possibility of inclusion, not exclusion.  They need to focus on what it means to witness as a minority within a larger culture and be a winsome community of love in Christ.

What about Christmas?

This takes us back to Christmas.  We wring our hands about how it has become commercialized while we go out with everyone else to buy our presents.  We tell the sales lady that it is Christmas, not simply Holiday!  We buy our evergreen tree and decorate it with everyone else.  We try to celebrate a fairly pagan holiday while insisting that it is all about Christ’s birthday.  I think there is an alternative, although it will take a little effort on our part.

My suggestion for the West is that we change the date of Christmas from the “Catholic” West to the “Orthodox” East.  Just as the Western Church took over the pagan festival as the Church became a power in Europe that forcefully Christianized culture—often losing its Christian witness in the process—so now, in post-Christian culture, we might just as well give it back.  This will be a tremendous gain for the Church, not a loss at all.

It will be a gain, firstly, because the Church is not trying to articulate its message around a holiday with Santa Claus, Hallmark, and the atheist governor fighting for control of the meaning of Christmas.  The Church can only gain by separating the message of Christ’s birth from all that.

Secondly, the Church would gain because its engagement with the world would not be over who has power and control in society.  Instead of forcing itself on society, the Church would be free to bear witness to its distinct identity.

Third, the Church will gain because at least one of the divisions between the West and the East in Christianity can be healed.  The Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January, not due to any theological debate that might be worth fighting over but simply because different calendars developed over time.  Well, why not join the celebration over on the other side of what is, in any case, a holiday time of year?  Let Coca Cola’s red suited Santa Claus have the 25th of December.  Let the stores have their commercial holiday and let them fight Hallmark over whether it is about promoting capitalism or showing "Holiday" cheer and love to neighbours.  There is nothing on the 7th of January except the Orthodox Christmas—just waiting for Christians worldwide to focus their attention on that day, without any other claims.  This would allow Christians, like the Greek festival in Charlotte, to showcase what the day is really about, who Jesus Christ really is, and what the Church is celebrating.

Fourth, by celebrating Christmas on the 7th of January, Christians would have a non-threatening opportunity to stand apart from culture and witness to culture.  Christians could keep their children home from school that day and, if possible, not go to work themselves.  (My Jewish friends did this on Jewish holidays in South Africa while the rest of us had to show up for classes!)  They would not be telling everyone else that they should also take the 7th of January off as a holiday but only that they do, as Christians.  In fact, Christian witness would be especially powerful in the West because Christians would be saying, “What you celebrate as Christmas has nothing to do with our faith—go ahead, we might even join with you in a Winter Holiday celebration of food and presents that is pretty much the same as the Autumn Harvest Festival (if in the northern hemisphere, or Thanksgiving, if in America).”  And then, by celebrating Jesus’ birth a couple weeks later, Christians would be making the world ask, “So, what is this holiday of yours all about?”  At last, we could explain that it has nothing to do with decorated trees and Santa Claus but about God sending His Son into the World to live among a people that needs a Saviour.

We could, fifthly, also reform some of our all-too-pagan practices around Christmas.  How about making it a “Giving” day instead of a “Getting Day”?  By that I do not mean exchanging presents, as though that is giving, but a day that the Christian Church actually gives to those in need?  We could be a visible presence in society that day for the good that we do in our local areas.  (Imagine that!)  We would be distinct from society but in a way that serves the larger society.  This would not make Christmas into a family holiday, as it now is, with everyone trying to get home for Christmas.  It would be alright that the college students have already left for college (if that occurs—it often would not), that children are back in school, or that people are already back to work from the “Winter Holiday” celebrations.  Christmas would be about the Church incarnate in society just as Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh and dwelt among us.  We could have a church service on this holy day, a special service that somehow makes the wise and wealthy foreigners from the East as welcome as the lowly and despised shepherds in the field welcome.  We would need to alter our church calendar slightly in the West, but this is not a difficult task—and tradition needs to serve the witness of the Church, not the other way around!


We have a lot to think about as we learn to live as a minority within society in the post-Christian West.  We need to learn to give up power, but to do so in ways that increase the witness of our unique faith in Christ Jesus.  We need to learn how to have discussions about ethics that do not simply revolve around the human rights debates of Enlightenment ethics.  We need to learn how to explain our faith as belief amidst scientific foundationalism just as much as we need to learn how to articulate our universal claims regarding truth in a postmodern world that only believes in locally constructed, functional truth.  We need to learn how to speak of God in a culture that struggles to see anything transcendent beyond the immediate and physical—like the mid-twentieth century, existentialist playwright, Ingmar Bergmann, concluding the God is silent and, unable even to explain a transcendent notion such as love, settling simply for the momentary pleasure of sex.  As we seek to live winsomely but against the grain of our now pagan culture, we might have a go at what this could look like by moving the date of Christmas and watch what happens!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Church 4: Confessing Sin as Congregational Testimony

The Church 4: Confessing Sin as Congregational Testimony


Ah, confession of sin in the weekly worship service!  Here is a division between various forms of worship in Evangelical churches.  Some churches do, some do not—and who knows why anymore? Here follows my appeal to reinstitute this practice where it is not present, and to understand one role it plays in the worship service where it is already practiced: congregational testimony.

I have been a part of a great variety of worship forms over the years: Assemblies of God, Baptist, Evangelical Free, Presbyterian, Kaley Heywet, and Anglican in particular.  High Church worship—liturgical worship—and Reformed theology seem quite comfortable with a confession of sins by the congregation.  Confession of sin is an ancient part of Christian liturgy.  Theologically, it fits well with a Reformed ecclesiology that sees the local church in covenantal terms: that is, as consisting of “Israel” and the “elect” within Israel: not all in the church are believers.  It makes sense within a theological tradition that stresses human depravity, sanctification as a process not completed in this life, and for a view of salvation that distances grace and faith from works.  On the other hand, churches stemming from the Wesleyan and especially holiness tradition have a different notion of what the local church and Christian life are.  The local church is an assembly of true believers, saints, challenging each other to holiness.  The Christian life is more than just forgiveness of sins; it is transformational and a walking in step with the Spirit.  In such a tradition, confession of sins seems defeatist: are we going to go back to “Go” every Sunday rather than press on in our faith?

Speaking personally, in the higher Church and more Reformed churches, I used to feel the challenge of the holiness churches that we should be beyond confession of sin, while always feeling grateful for a time to confess sin!  In the more holiness church traditions, on the other hand, I feared the danger of triumphalism in the spiritual life and nevertheless, like everyone else, sought out times to confess my sins privately.  Just how do we resolve this tension between liturgies and theologies?  Well, not in a brief essay, but here is an initial attempt to speak to the issue.


For the past fifty or so years, Evangelicals have learned to speak of Christian eschatology as “already/not yet”: we live in the overlap of the ages, when we are not yet done with this world while also living out the life of the age to come through the Spirit.  We live between the first and second coming of Christ.  We have not reached a perfection in our own lives even if, in Christ, we are perfected already.  We stand before God not in our own righteousness but in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The solution to the situation of the believer is not a static theology but a dynamic theology, such as Paul states in Philippians:

Philippians 3:10-14   10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,  11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.


The local church is not a hospital for convalescing sinners.  It is a fellowship of the people of God that has removed the “yeast” of sin in order to celebrate the Passover sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  As Paul says to an all-too-sinful church in Corinth,

1 Corinthians 5:7-8   7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

The church is the righteous remnant itself, not the covenant community in which might be found the righteous remnant.  It is not the field in which grow wheat and tares side by side (Mt. 13.24-30; in this parable, the field is the world, not the church—despite many a misguided commentary and sermon!).  It has authority to deal with sin and can exclude persons from fellowship—which is Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 5 and is also something we hear reflected in other New Testament passages (e.g., Mt. 18:12-20; 2 Cor. 2.5-11; 1 Jn. 5.16-21).  Such passages involve church judgement, restoration, ostracism, and prayer for sinners.  The church is a community dealing with its own sin.  As Paul says,

Galatians 6:1  My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.

Soteriology and Sanctification

The relationship between “justification” and “sanctification” has been articulated in a variety of ways, often in terms of 16th century theological concerns more than Biblical theology.  While affirming that the semi- or all-out Pelagianism in some quarters of the Roman Church of the 16th century was way off base, we need to realize that an unhealthy separation of salvation from sanctification is a frequent challenge for many Protestants.  Such was the concern of Lutheran Pietists, Calvinist Puritans, Anglican Wesleyans, and holiness Methodists. At one extreme, there is a hyper-grace notion that almost celebrates sin because it emphasizes all the more the grace of God.  This is, however, a sad misunderstanding of grace as forgiving grace without understanding grace as also a transforming grace, and Paul rightly rejected it with one of his emphatic “May it never be!” statements in Rom. 6.1.  As he continues in the same passage, he explains how grace is transformative, a dying and rising with Christ—and in Rom. 8 he explains further that the body of those in Christ is “dead” and they have “life” through the indwelling Spirit (vv. 10-11).  The moral life is not our option to show gratitude for God’s grace; the moral life is the life of the indwelling Spirit of God for those in Christ.  Those who do not have the Spirit do not belong to Christ.

Yet this is not a static theology: it is not a spiritual graduation such that believers are simply done with the flesh, temptation, and sin.  Because of sin, people were “not able not to sin”; because of Christ and the Spirit, believers are “able not to sin.”  What is required of us, then, who have the Spirit?  We are exhorted to live as debtors (without imagining that we can pay the debt ourselves). We are to stop living according to the flesh and, by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the flesh.  We are to be led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8.12-14).  We are to breathe the life of the Spirit not in one breath but throughout our lives.  He continuously lives in us, expelling our sin and giving us the breath of life.


So we come to worship.  Worship is a performance of our theology, and it will be best when it captures our entire narrative of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joyful celebration of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit.  Whether or not we have personally sinned in the past week (and who is to be certain of such a thing?), as a people we stand before God as a confessional people.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses.”  We gather around the Table to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11.26).  To be a people of the Table is to be a people of confession: we need this, our confession of sin and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shed his blood on the cross for our sins, a sacrifice of atonement.

John spoke of this in his first epistle.  He was writing against those who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh, whether those believing the Messiah had not come or those believing that Jesus was not human (the so-called “Docetists”).  John affirmed that Jesus did, indeed, come in the flesh, is the Christ, and has provided the blood sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn. 1.7; 2.2).

To gather together as the church also means to enter into a fellowship of love for John.  Confession of sins rightly precedes the passing of the peace in liturgical worship (cf. 1 Jn. 2.9-11): confession, forgiveness, and fellowship are enacted in preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s Table.  Love for the fellowship of believers also goes with hatred of the world—in the sense of hatred of the sinful desires of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of riches (1 Jn. 2.15-16).  There are, says John, three who bear witness to Jesus as the Son of God: the water (cleansing birth), the blood (forgiving, sacrificial death), and the Spirit (creating new life) (1 Jn. 5.7-8).  To believe that Jesus is the Son of God is to “live” that truth in cleansing, forgiveness, and life of the Spirit.  Worship is not only about this, it is an experience of this.  Confession of sin as a people is a part of such worship.

If worship involves a congregational testimony to the Gospel itself, if it is a reenacting of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if it is a dynamic performance of our theology and life in Christ and the Spirit, then it must include congregational confession that leads to the celebration of forgiveness around the Lord’s Table.  Those churches that have shuffled the Lord’s Table off to occasional moments in the church’s worship—tacked on after the normal service once a month or even less—have to a significant degree omitted the centrality of Christian testimony in worship.  They struggle to testify to the Gospel through a few contemporary worship songs and a self-help sermon all too often focussed more on the preacher’s personal stories than Scripture or some big idea of the text expressed through some contemporary story.  Yet even these worship services retain a vestige of confession around their occasional celebrations of the Lord’s Table, when believers bow their heads in private confession before the cracker and grape juice are passed down the aisle. 

There are good and bad performances of the same practice, and, while private confession is in order, corporate confession is still something different.  We do not take the element of the Lord’s Supper on our own—although all too often services make this as private a practice as a group can do something privately!  We pass individually broken pieces of bread or crackers and individual, little glasses of juice (wine goes in the common cup!), we confess sins privately, we sit with the back of our heads towards one another in our private pew spaces—we have taken what started out in the Church as a corporate love feast and meal and turned it into a private affair in a public space.  And we do this as quickly as possible because it is, after all, an addition to the regular worship in such churches.  No wonder we have also, in those services, lost corporate confession.  We are in such churches a collection of individual believers, not a body.  We are an audience attending church programmes, not a family of believers.  We are private disciples sharing space together because the singers and the preacher cannot give us a private audience.

When we confess our sins together, as a people of God, we confess our need for Jesus’ death.  We confess that we are not yet a perfected people.  We confess that we need the Spirit indwelling us individually and corporately.  And we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

This was also one of the functions of prophecy in the early Church where unbelievers were concerned: the Spirit reproves and calls to account any undisclosed sin.  As Paul says,

1 Corinthians 14:24-25  But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.  25 After the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you."

We have just suffered through several decades of “Seeker Service” church, in which anything but confession of sin and the conviction of the Spirit can be heard or experienced by believers and unbelievers alike.  Thankfully, this craze is somewhat on the wane, but we have wandered far from the concept of the worshiping church as a confessing body testifying to the truth of the forgiving, reconciling, and life-giving Lord Jesus Christ and Spirit of God.


The worship service, then, is, in part, a confessional service.  It is a performance of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and celebration around the Lord’s Table that declares the Lord’s death.  It is both private and corporate, the people of God declaring their need of and experiencing the cleansing water, forgiving blood, and life-giving Spirit of Jesus Christ.  Confession of sin is a sincere prayer for forgiveness, but it is also a corporate testimony to the Gospel itself—a Gospel that, with the Spirit’s convicting presence, may cause unbelievers to bow down before God, worship Him, and declare that truly God is among us.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Issues Facing Missions Today 25: The Theology of Well-Being

Issues Facing Missions Today 25: The Theology of Well-Being


The discussion of spiritual versus social Gospel—or both in a holistic Gospel—is now extended further into issues of health, fitness, diet, well-being, medical mission (which fits in but is an older emphasis), psychological health, and so forth. While the new emphasis is something that has been going on under our noses for several decades, a theology of well-being seems to have come of age only recently.

A theology of well-being involves some very subtle shifts, sometimes with the same terminology, taking place. 'Holistic,' e.g., used to mean 'not only spiritual but also social' in theological circles. Now people are using it to refer to 'not only spiritual but physical'. This theological move is seen as extending of the tracks rather than a different line for the Gospel train.  Just what is driving this new theological dialogue?

Six Forces Driving a Theology of Well-Being

There are actually powerful theological forces at work here, and they might not be related in themselves, but they are coming together in a new theology of well-being. Apart from decades of liberation theology and the Prosperity Gospel, new theological ideas are working towards this emphasis on the Gospel and the body.

1. Physicalism:

One new theological idea is physicalism, which downplays the supernatural world (angels, demons, life after death, etc.) and therefore brings the focus on the physical.[1] Another approach is to see spirituality in Scripture as human health in real and embodied relationships.[2] One related consideration is how to understand Jesus' healing ministry: was it first about the coming of the power of God at the end of the age (1 Cor. 10.11), or was it first about God's compassion and Jesus' great example to care for the needy? Are the gifts of the Spirit to be understood as a community ethic or as a Spirit-gifted community of faith? In a word, to what extent does the new physical theology entail belief in a spiritual power at work in and through Christian faith and ministry and in Christian communities? This physical theology is found in modernist theologies that oppose spiritual emphases in traditional Christian theology. It is everywhere present in non-Evangelical, liberal theology, which denies all miracles outright. But it is also present in Cessationist, Evangelical theology, which denies miracles today but, for reasons of Biblical authority, accepts them as they are stated in the Scriptures.[3]

2. The New Pneumatology

Another theological trend is thinking about the Spirit as life force. The Spirit is understood theologically in this new line of thought not so much as a person as what gives us life and makes us thrive as creatures.  This is well represented in Moltmann's theology, who advocates a new era of thinking of mission as a theology of the Spirit (versus Christology).  The new approach is not narrowing, as a mission calling for people to believe in Jesus Christ.  A theology of the Spirit is, on his view, more ecumenical, because it affirms whatever promotes life.[4]

3. Creation Theology

A third focus is on creation theology, which offers a theology for all people, not just Christians, and emphasises the gift of life that everyone wants to acknowledge and promote. This is easily related to the previous point that emphasises a certain understanding of the Spirit. Interestingly, it takes the focus off of Jesus, the cross, and suffering. It is as though creation theology is now about ecology and personal health, and it does not engage a doctrine of sin and the need for new creation in Christ.  Theology becomes very general, whereas the specifics of belief have to do with ecology: climate change, biodiversity, genetically modified foods, etc.[5] The 2013 statement by the World Council of Churches entitled, ‘‘Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes,’ includes understanding health, healing, and wholeness as part of mission and evangelism. Quoting from the document:

‘This understanding of health coheres with the biblical-theological tradition of the church, which sees a human being as a multidimensional unity of body, soul, and mind as interrelated and interdependent. [Note the subtle shifts in view of authority, not using ‘spirit’, etc.] It thus affirms the social, political, and ecological dimensions of personhood and wholeness. Health … [is] the sense of wholeness’ (Section 51). 

Thomas Kemper points out other reasoning in this document.[6]  This emphasis has its roots in Jesus’ healing ministry and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  It is articulated in terms of community, as all the parts of our lives and community are brought together in love.  It practically means work in health mission and ministry.  It works together with other emphases in holistic mission—peace, justice, and liberation.  It unifies the community of faith and helps to build relations with persons of other faiths since healing and wholeness are concerns of all humanity (concerns of having abundant life and affirming the integrity of all creation). The encouraged reader needs to pause, however, and ask where Jesus is in this physio-political description of the mission of God.

4. Ecumenism

The fourth point has already been stated but needs to be represented separately.  Ecumenism is, for some, an end in itself, or at least a powerful driving force in theological work.  Thus, it is either a stated or unstated argument underlying the urge to move to abstract levels of thinking so that greater relationships can be forged between religions. This can lead to people seeing evangelism as problematic, since it can stir disagreement and even result in violence. Thus, a general, international 'ethic' of tolerance lies at the root of some global, ecumenical efforts to promote health.  The issue here is not about health, per se, but about arguments used to speak about promoting health.

5. America’s Religion

Fifth, in America, the current focus on personal well-being fits with a cultural interest in national health, fitness, and diet that, at times, becomes a political focus with significant social implications (who to hire/include in the group, what to permit--as the size of sodas sold in New York, etc.). We do well to understand American culture as a religion that interacts with Christian faith, often influencing and altering it. An example is the Daniel Plan, which reinterprets the Gospel in terms of health and fitness.[7]

6. Spirituality

Sixth, there is a current in popular preaching of what might be called spiritual wellness. This idea is represented in the televised addresses of Joel Osteen, who tells people that they have a force within them to overcome their problems. As the present iteration of the power of positive thinking, earlier associated with Norman Vincent Peale, it is appealing to people who want a good news that is not about God so much as oneself, although the lines get blurred. The result, though, is a theology with little use for Jesus even if God is regularly invoked as the source of the internal energy for overcoming the struggles and challenges of life.

Conclusion: A Christian Alternative—a Theology of the Cross

The theology of well-being brings together diverse and powerful theological traditions and cultural forces, and the result is a direct, albeit subtle, attack on orthodox theology. It is more of an anthropology than a theology, focussing on the physical without the spiritual, anthropology rather than theology, generic theology rather than Christology and Pneumatology, a ‘life-giving’ Pneumatology that is for everyone rather than the breathing of Christ on the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit (Jn. 20.22), and on what humans can do to overcome the curse of Gen. 3. It reinterprets what has been understood of Jesus' ministry, it deemphasizes the cross, and it reframes a doctrine of the Spirit. Practically, it presents itself as a positive theology about well-being for body, mind, and spirit.

The alternative theology is a theology of the cross.  It is clearly articulated throughout the New Testament.  It is, first of all, Christ-focussed.  Any theology of creation is now to be understood in terms of Jesus Christ and not as a theology without Christ (cf. Col. 1.15-20).  Creation is now to be thought of eschatologically as well: if anyone is in Christ, ‘New Creation!’ (2 Cor. 5.17; cf. Gal. 6.15).  A theology of the body is now understood in terms of Christ’s purchase of us that we might glory God in our body—and this is said not in terms of health and fitness programmes but in terms of being done with sexual sins; 1 Cor. 6.20).  And so forth—numerous examples could be given from Scripture.  Such a theology must also be held with reference to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15).  Paul simply takes every theology captive with his Christ-focussed theology.  Moreover, in Paul, we find how the theology of the cross of Jesus Christ becomes the reality (more than ‘story’ or ‘paradigm’!) in which Paul lived.  The cross is an essential reality in believers’ lives in terms of dying to sin (e.g., Rom. 6) and facing opposition, persecution, and suffering in this life and in ministry (e.g, 2 Cor. 10-12).

The other corrective to this general drift of theological writing in our day is to realize that the Gospel entails the good news of the transforming power of God in people’s lives. Healing is reduced to mere well-being when we articulate it simply in medical and psychological terms. If it is to be understood in terms of Jesus' ministry, it is the in-breaking power of God to transform sinners, heal the sick, and exorcise the demon possession. Healing is all about the fact that Jesus has inaugurated the reign of God. If we miss this, then we'll limit ministry to a homosexual or paedophile or person addicted to pornography to the level of offering a few precautions to take to avoid temptation. Such a mindset denies the power of the Gospel.  Christian ministry of the ‘good news’ will involve praying for the power of God to transform a person’s life to free them from sin and to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and unblemished to the Lord (Rom. 12.1f). God’s grace is not just forgiving grace but transforming grace.  It is a power at work within us (Eph. 3.20).

If we miss the point that the Gospel is good news because it announces the transforming power of God, then we will try to talk about well-being for pastors in struggling circumstances in merely human terms: stay fit, eat well, take sabbaticals, have a good rhythm to the work-week, go to seminars on dealing with conflict, etc. Absolutely none of that (and let's grant it is all fine to a certain extent) comes close to Paul's understanding of ministry. He could say that he was outwardly wasting away but inwardly being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4.16). He was 100% Christ focussed (Gal. 2.20, e.g.). He held out the hope to abound in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15.13).

As Luke demonstrates in Acts, the early Church was a ministry of and in the power of the Holy Spirit in a sinful world of suffering and death.  This does not lead to a Prosperity Gospel.  Suffering and death are part of the present age.  Yet we are ministers of good news, that there is in Christ forgiveness, redemption, salvation, reconciliation, healing, freedom from demonic forces, and ultimately resurrection in Christ Jesus.  This does not lead us to a theology of well-being, of physical health, contentment in ministry, psychological strength, and so forth.  It rather leads us to say that, whatever state we are in, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil 4.12-13).

None of this, to be sure, restricts us from doing good to all, especially to the household of faith (Gal. 6.10).  Rather, the issue is the right perspective, that whatever we do, whether in word or in deed, we do it in the name of our Lord Jesus (Col. 3.17).  With this, we move from understanding ministry as leadership instead of service, discipleship as satisfaction instead of sacrifice, and the Christian life as well-being instead of suffering.  With this, we hold on to our future hope in Christ rather than cash in our theology for what it offers us here and now--for when Christ, who is our very life, appears, we will appear with him in glory (Col. 3.4).

[1] For example, see Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[2] James K. Bruckner, Healthy Human Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).
[3] For a discussion of views, see Wayne Grudem, ed. Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).
[4] J. Moltmann, 'The Mission of the Spirit--The Gospel of Life,' in Mission: An Invitation to God's Future, ed. T. Yates (Calver, Hope Valley, Near Sheffield: Cliff College Pub., 2000), pp. 28f.
[5] See papers from The John Ray Initiative connecting environment, science, and Christianity.  Accessed 2 October, 2014:
[6] Thomas Kemper, ‘The Missio Dei in Contemporary Context,’ International Bulletin of Missionary Research 38.4 (October, 2014): 188-190.
[7] See the website for the Daniel Plan.  Accessed 2 October, 2014:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Issues Facing Missions Today 24: Some Methodological Questions for Leadership Studies

Issues Facing Missions Today 24: Some Methodological Questions for Leadership Studies


In the following essay, I would like to ask three questions related to the study of ministry and challenge the idea that ‘leadership’ helps us in this study.  The questions are: (1) How should Christian ministry appropriate the social sciences? (2) Is ‘leadership’ an appropriate concept for Christian ministry?, and (3) What exactly are terms for ministry in the Church, and do they involve the notion of leadership?

Three Questions

First, ‘How should Christian ministry appropriate the social sciences?’  The issue here is not whether the social sciences are worth investigating, but how they should be engaged.  One approach might be to adopt a theory from the social sciences as a starting point.  Another, opposite approach might be to try to derive a theory from Scripture.  For example, methodologically one might begin with pedagogical theory from the field of education or one might attempt to discover Jesus’ teaching methods.  Another example might be that one might adopt a counselling theory from the field of psychology or one might try to articulate an approach to counselling that is somehow derived from Scripture.

In either case mentioned in each of these two examples, we need to ask whether Scripture is actually teaching something or whether we are merely using Scripture to illustrate a notion—in which case Scripture is not functioning authoritatively.  If we were to say that we can illustrate facilitative and active learning, analogical reasoning, or the use of figures in rhetoric in Jesus’ teaching, we would not be using Scripture authoritatively.  Jesus would merely be our illustration of teaching methods and communication theory (or rhetoric) that we derived from those fields of study.  If we were to argue that Scripture teaches us something about what it means to be human, that there is a struggle with passions of the flesh and desire, and that we are more than physical beings, we would be working towards an approach to counselling based on the authoritative teachings of Scripture that will certainly challenge reigning ideas in the field of counselling.  As a teacher, I may learn much that is helpful about teaching from the field of adult education.  In fact, I am far more inclined to turn to the field of education than to Scripture to learn about teaching, since Scripture is not a textbook on teaching.

Such examples are offered so that we might consider the idea of leadership when discussing ministry.  When Scripture is engaged in leadership studies, we must ask whether a contemporary author is (1) merely illustrating some notion derived from another field of study altogether (‘Leadership Studies’) or (2) is identifying an essential Biblical teaching.  Even if we have derived a part of our theory from what Scripture actually teaches, we further need to realize that Scripture is not teaching our entire theory.  A collection of different points, even if Biblical, does not make the whole—a theology or theory—Biblical.

The even more basic question to ask with leadership studies is whether leadership is in fact a helpful notion at all for discussing Christian ministry.  It may be an established field of study in the social sciences, but is it relevant for ministry in the church?  For example, a student once asked the question whether we do not need a theory of leadership in our day because we have so many large churches.  We might, I would suggest, rather ask, ‘In what way does a large church strain the Biblical notion of a ‘gathered community’ that experiences spiritual gifts and fellowship?  Is a large ‘church’ really a ‘church’—especially if we find ourselves forced to move from the concept of ministry (service) to leadership because of our new ecclesiological focus?’  I realize that I am pushing hard here, but not inappropriately, against merely accepting categories that come to us already endorsed by our contexts, our present state of learning, our assumptions, and our cultures.  We might find ourselves adopting certain theories from the social sciences, but we need to be careful each step of the way that we have not distorted our reading of Scripture.

As an alternative, for example, consider the consultancy work of Greg Troxell, called Professional DynaMetric Programs or PDP.[1]  Instead of discussing ministry in terms of leadership (although he does use the term on occasion but not in his analyses), he uses the field of psychology to explore ministry discernment and discipleship.  He uses simple testing to clarify a person’s ministry (apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher),[2] spiritual gifts (prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, administration, and mercy), availability, experience, talents, Christian spirituality, personal and behavioral style, and motivational needs.  The method of research is not about defining a single category but working with multiple categories: it is not about what makes a good leader but about (1) who makes a good colleague for this team and (2) what various personalities (and other factors) aid or hinder a person in his or her calling to that ministry.  Such a method seems to leave Scripture to define gifts, ministry, the church, and so forth while it uses psychology and testing to facilitate forming a staff and to help persons be more self-aware of their strengths and challenges as they offer their services within certain contexts.[3]

Second, Is ‘leadership’ an appropriate concept for Christian ministry?  One question I would like us to think about long and hard is whether we need the category 'leadership' when we speak about people in various oversight roles. ‘Leadership’ is not the same thing as ‘oversight’.  Think about the difference between the words 'authority' and 'responsibility.'  The former moves us to speak of power and its use, the latter to speak of obligation and obedience.  The former is a 'leadership' term, the latter is a 'servanthood/discipleship' term.  If I have oversight of something, I think of my responsibility in regard to that thing.  For example, if I am entrusted with oversight over a classroom of students and their learning in my class, I am not approaching this task as a ‘leader’ but as a teacher, responsible to educate these students in the right ways with the right curriculum. The concept of 'leadership' is irrelevant to my service or ministry as a teacher.  In fact, it would confuse the ministry I am called to do.  I think about gifting--my gift is teaching.  I do not think about holding an office, wielding power, how to control people, and the like.  I think about responsibility to proclaim the Gospel and to teach students the Scriptures.  So, my question is, if we want to speak about elders, overseers, deacons (the word means 'servants'!), pastors, teachers, etc., would it not just be best to explore what these roles of service are and how to go about them?  Do we need some catch-all concept like 'leadership' to understand them?  And, if we are to have a catch-all term, why ‘leadership’ instead of ‘ministry’ (that is, service)?

Third, What exactly are terms for ministry in the Church, and do they involve the notion of leadership?  When we find persons in some oversight role in Scripture, such as 'apostle’, we need to examine in great detail what in fact is said about this.  So, e.g., Paul is aware that 'apostle' could carry rights and authority (1 Cor. 9; 2 Cor. 11), but he radically undermines this understanding for his own role as an apostle.  He rather turns his role as apostle from being a leadership notion into a responsibility and service notion having to do with faithfully discharging the Gospel (Gal. 1.8) or servicing of others (1 Cor. 9.15-27).  His apostleship is not the exercising of authority over others but the fulfillment of a charge, like an ambassador (2 Cor. 5.20). 

From 1 Tim. 3, we see that the overseer (or elder) and the deacon in the church are entrusted with responsibilities such as teaching, finances, and other ministries of service.  Their roles are understood in terms of responsibility rather than authority, service instead of office, function instead of status, and the qualifications for these ministries have to do with whether candidates have proven themselves over time and can be trusted to fulfill their responsibilities.  There is only the slightest element of authority over others in the qualification that they have control over their own households (vv. 4-5), but even that could be understood more from the perspective of responsibility (‘how will he care for the church of God so that members are guided in the right direction of truth rather than false teaching?’) than how to exercise authority over others. 

Elders are called ‘shepherds’ in 1 Peter 5.  They are not to lord it over others but to be examples to them (v. 3).  In Hebrews 13.7, where the word ‘hēgoumenōn’ is translated as ‘leaders’ in the NRSV and ESV, we should probably have more in mind ‘those who guide you,’ since that is the idea.  The passage goes on to say to those following these ‘leaders’, ‘consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.’  Finally, in Rom. 12.8, the word translated ‘leader’ in various English translations comes from two Greek words: to ‘stand’ ‘before’.  A leader stands before people, but also the person who shows others how to do something.  It likely is to be understood in the same sense as 1 Pt. 5.3 and Heb. 13.7: there are people in the community who set the example for others.  The community recognizes them in this role, and they can carry responsibility.

If we think it appropriate to call this ‘leadership,’ we need to recognize that this is not ‘servant-leadership.’  Servant-leadership is a notion of the use of power to serve others, but such passages have in mind serving and caring for others by showing them the way to live, and being faithful stewards.  Is this Biblical understanding of ministry at all enhanced by speaking rather of leadership and deriving information from leadership studies from the business world?


The way forward in considerations of Christian ministry is to be radically Biblical, avoiding the appropriation and misuse of Scripture in ways that give the appearance of being Biblical while really deriving notions and practices from other sources.  This does not mean jettisoning the use of the social sciences, but it does require us to be clear about what is Biblical and what is not.  Psychology can be used to discuss various types of ministries and ministry settings, for example, without suspiciously trying to implant notions from the sciences in Scripture.  We need to be aware of our assumptions and methods all along the way.  Ultimately, ‘leadership’ proves to be too problematic a concept to discuss Christian ministry, bringing with it misunderstandings at so many levels that it can only distort Biblical teaching.  This is true even where we think that we have ‘leadership’ terminology in the New Testament Church.  An appropriate Biblical understanding of ministry will best be derived from careful study of each ministry role on its own and by understanding these roles in terms of the responsibility, not authority, that each carries.

[1] See the description at
[2] This list comes from Eph. 4.9. It is worth noting that the list of ministries is neither incomplete nor mutually exclusive.  In fact, Paul’s syntax with ‘pastors and teachers’ in the list suggests some overlap between the two.  Still, if such categories are used to probe discussion rather than restrict a person to a certain ministry, they can be helpful.
[3] My purpose in mentioning this is only to offer one way someone might explore things differently that others have tried to discuss under the terminology of ‘leadership’.  I am not sufficiently familiar with Troxell’s actual work to endorse it as such.  I remain wary of simplifications, classifications, and categories that get overused and end up limiting rather than opening up considerations.  For a simple example, Moses had a speech impediment that would have, in his mind, hindered him from the ministry to which he was called.  For God, that was simply an issue to overcome rather than a limitation that disqualified him.