The Lion and His Table

The Lion and His Table
Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why Foreign Missions? 20p: A Gospel of Transforming Power

Why Foreign Missions? 20p: A Gospel of Transforming Power

Paul speaks of the Gospel as the ‘power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’ (Rom. 1.16).  Why is it that Paul does not say that the Gospel is the 'forgiveness of God for salvation'—why the ‘power of God for salvation'?  This question is relevant not only for understanding Paul's Gospel; it is also a most relevant question for our day as well.

There is an inadequate Evangelical theology that narrows the Biblical understanding of both sin and redemption.  On the one hand, it understands sin in terms of behaviour and actions and not also in terms of thoughts, the heart, passions, dispositions, and orientations.  The Anglican confession of sin correctly presses our understanding of sin to include more than behaviour:

We acknowledge and repent of our many sins and offenses,
which we have committed by thought, word, and deed,
against your divine majesty,
provoking most justly your righteous anger against us.

The alternative understanding of sin that sees sin mostly or totally in terms of behaviours and practices distinguishes ‘homosexual practice’ from ‘homosexual orientation’ or ‘same-sex attraction’. It suggests that the practice alone is sinful, whereas orientation or attraction is—while perhaps a product of the fall (like a physical ailment)—not sinful.   

On the other hand, when it comes to redemption, this theological view places a primary emphasis on forgiveness in its understanding of the work of Christ on the cross.  Jesus’ death for us on the cross is understood as a forgiving grace—for which there are ample Biblical texts—but not also as a transforming grace.  The atonement is not typically seen as transformational on this view, and sanctification, too, is understood as partial and gradual.  This may or may not be so; the point of this post is not about the relationship between justification and sanctification.  The point is rather that the Christian life is seen essentially in terms of God’s judgement regarding and view of the believer and not very much in terms of living in the transforming power of God.

This narrower understanding of sin and grace has a very practical consequence.  Until now, sexually related sins in focus in the average Evangelical congregation had to do mostly with behaviours such as premarital sex, adultery, and abortion.  The recent issue of homosexuality raises the question, ‘Is only homosexual practice sinful, or is homosexual orientation itself also to be understood as sinful?’  Denny Burk has recently raised this question, arguing that orientation itself should be understood as sinful.[1]  I have argued several related points in a forthcoming book: (1) antiquity offered several views regarding sexual orientation (contrary to those who think 'orientation' is a modern discovery); (2) Paul understood homosexuality in terms of both behaviour and orientation; and (3) Paul expressed a view regarding sinful orientations and the transforming power of God.[2]  Some pastors and ethicists, on the other hand, have settled on the view that homosexual behaviour or practice alone is sinful, telling persons who say that they are attracted to the same sex to avoid acting out their desires.  They offer little hope or incentive for an actual change in orientation.

A Deeper Understanding of Sin and Redemption

Jesus spoke of sin not in terms of actions alone but also and especially in terms of the heart.  This was, in fact, a distinguishing characteristic of his ethics over against that of the Pharisees.  Jesus said,

Matthew 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

In the antitheses that follow (Matthew 5.21-48), Jesus pushes his hearers’ understanding of ethics beyond such actions as murder, adultery, divorce, swearing falsely, and retaliation to an ethic of the heart.  On another occasion, Jesus rejected the Pharisees’ understanding of what was clean and unclean precisely because it focussed on the external instead of the human heart.  He said,

Mark 7:20-23  "It is what comes out of a person that defiles.  21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,  22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

Like Jesus (and others), Paul could, indeed, discuss sin in terms of actions.  A sin list such as Romans 1.29-32 (Paul’s longest) has such a focus:

Romans 1:29-32   29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,  30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents,  31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  32 They know God's decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die-- yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

However, one of Paul’s primary contributions to Christian ethics is in his understanding of sin as a power behind whatever behaviours result.  He uses the word ‘flesh’ to speak of life lived apart from God and according to one’s own inclinations.  He says,

Romans 7:5 While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.

What is needed is not only forgiveness to cover our sins but a power from God to overcome the power of sin.  Paul sees the work of Christ to be far more than forgiveness—a term that he actually does not use for the work of Christ outside Ephesians (1.7; 4.32) and Colossians (1.14; 3.13).  He sees the work of Christ as a power that overcame the power of sin.  As he says in the next verse after that quoted above,

Romans 7:6  But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

Telling people that they are likely to continue in an orientation that God condemns for whatever reason and that they should just avoid acting out that orientation is really to offer a half-Gospel to them.  It is thought that this half-Gospel is pastorally better because it eases the guilt of one’s wrongful orientation and only calls on the person to avoid sinful behaviours out of that orientation.  But which is really the pastoral disaster?  Is it not the one that fails to believe that there is power in the cross and power in the Spirit to live the righteous life?  Paul speaks of being set free from slavery to sin and says that we are now slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6.18).  He does not understand this as a slavery so that one cannot do anything other than righteousness but as slavery in the sense that we now belong to righteousness.  Thus he says that we must present our members to righteousness for sanctification (Rom. 6.19).  Being free from slavery to sin, we are now slaves to another master, living righteous lives unto God.

Paul’s primary point in Romans 6-8 is that the power at work in us is able to overcome the power of sin.  Paul first argues that the Law is powerless to accomplish this in us; in fact, it becomes a tool used by the power of sin at work in us (Rom. 7.7-25).  He then argues that the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit fulfill the just requirement of the law within us.  He says, 

Romans 8:2-4   For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.  3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Indeed, Romans 1.16-12.2 is a long theological argument about how we move from the depraved mind (Rom. 1.28) to the transformed mind (Rom. 12.2).  Paul briefly describes how homosexual orientation arises at the beginning of this argument:

Romans 1:22-27   22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools;  23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.  24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves,  25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,  27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Then he concludes that women and men are beholden to a depraved mind:

Romans 1:28  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.

The work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, however, accomplish a transformation.  God’s grace (‘the mercies of God,’ Rom. 12.1) is not just a forgiving grace; it is also a transforming grace.  Paul says at the conclusion of his theological argument,

Romans 12:1-2  I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.

 The Old Testament Basis for This Teaching: The New Covenant

The Gospel says so much more than that we get out of hell free despite our sins—our behaviours.  The Old Testament basis for the New Testament’s understanding of redemption is the story of Israel’s exile, captivity, and redemption by God.  Israel does not get out of exile in Babylon despite its sin; God promises also to deal with their sinful orientation.  The Gospel is about God doing a work in the heart to change us, the people of God ‘exiled’ from God’s presence because of our sin.  God not only forgives us but transforms us.  Redemption is not merely a buying back of an enslaved people; it is also transformation of the heart.  Each of the three major prophets express this explicitly in their description of God’s new covenant with his people:

Isaiah 59:20-21   20 And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the LORD.  21 And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the LORD: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children's children, says the LORD, from now on and forever.

Jeremiah 31:31-34   31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.  33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Ezekiel 36:25-27   25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

These passages are essential for understanding New Testament teaching on salvation.  Salvation is pictured as redemption from exile.  The Israelites went into exile because of their sins.  God does not just let them out of exile by his grace.  His grace is greater than that.  It is a power to transform.  It is the grace of redemption, of the Spirit, of a changed heart.  It is a cleansing and a new obedience.  This is transforming grace.  It is living in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ:

Romans 8:11   If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Paul’s ‘Full Gospel’, as Seen in Colossians

The ‘from sinful behaviour to forgiveness’ theology understands the cross as a payment of a debt, leaving any transformation of the sinner to a theology of sanctification.  We might cite a passage from Colossians to affirm this, although it is only half the Gospel:

Colossians 2:13-14  And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses,  14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

Yet Paul also sees the cross as a power that overcomes other powers.  In the next verse, he says:

Colossians 2:15  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

The cosmic triumph of God on the cross also extends to the person who comes to Christ, for he or she breaks free from these powers:

Colossians 2:20  If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations,…

This means a transformed life here and now even as we await our life with Christ when he returns:

Colossians 3:1-4  So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,  3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

In Ephesians—a more general epistle that is based on Colossians—Paul prays for believers regarding the ‘power at work within them’:

Ephesians 3:20-21  Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Three Transformational Metaphors in Paul

Three times Paul uses similar language that seems to be part of early Christian worship in regard to the meaning of salvation.  Salvation is pictured as someone asleep—a euphemism for death—and waking up—a euphemism for resurrection.  It is also pictured as coming out of darkness or the night to the light.  And it is pictured as putting on the armor of God.  In one of Paul’s earliest epistles, we encounter these metaphors:

1 Thessalonians 5:5-8 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

We also find these metaphors in Romans,

Romans 13:11-14  11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;  13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

In this passage, Paul’s metaphor of waking up from the night continues with the metaphor of dressing: putting on the armor of light.  We find these metaphors a third time in Ephesians, and in verse 14 we get the hint that Paul is actually basing his exhortation on an early Christian hymn.  He says,

Ephesians 5:11-14  11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly;  13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,  14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

The metaphor of dressing appears earlier in Eph. 4.24—to clothe ourselves with the new person—but the metaphor of dressing in the armor of God also appears in Ephesians, in Eph. 6.11-17.  Thus 1 Thes. 5.5-8; Rom. 13.11-14; and Eph. 5.11-14; 6.11-17 carry parallel imagery for salvation as transformative (waking from sleep, leaving darkness for the light, and putting on God’s armor).

Such metaphors offer far more than a ‘from sinful behaviour to forgiveness’ theology.  They understand the plight to be deeper than behaviour and the solution to be greater than forgiveness.  They are part of a ‘from depravity to transformation’ Gospel.  The hope we have in Christ is not an initial dressing of our wounds of sin in triage until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ but of a healing of the sinful heart, an empowering of the Spirit, a transformation of the mind, and living under the Lordship of the resurrected and exalted Jesus Christ.


The ‘Good News’—the Gospel—in the preaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul was about the coming of both God’s forgiveness and transforming power in Jesus Christ and the Spirit.  As such, it offered a solution not only to past sins but to the power of sin, not just for sinful behaviours but also for sinful orientations.  This is not to offer a triumphal Gospel as though it is impossible to sin anymore (cf. Gal. 6.1), but it is to offer a Gospel that is more than just forgiveness for sins.  As we have seen, the Gospel is about a ‘power at work within us’ (Eph. 3.20).  It is the ‘power of salvation’ that Paul sets out to explain in Romans (cf. Rom. 1.16). The Gospel is, therefore, about both a forgiving grace and a transforming grace.  In our day, we need to recapture this full Gospel.  God is preparing us for Christ’s coming, like a bride being made ready to meet her groom (Eph. 5.25-27).  Thus, to this end, we might pray for one another (for there is power in prayer) with Paul,

2 Thessalonians 1:11-12   11 To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith,  12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] See Denny Burk, “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 58:1 (March 2015): 95-115.  In conclusion, he asks, ‘Is same-sex orientation sinful?  Insofar as same-sex orientation designates the experience of sexual desire for a person of the same sex, yes, it is sinful.  Insofar as same-sex orientation indicates emotional/romantic attractions that brim with erotic possibility, yes, those attractions too are sinful.  Insofar as sexual orientation designates an identity, yes, that identity too is a sinful fiction that contradicts God’s purposes for his creation’ (p. 114).  He further says, ‘Sin is not merely what we do.  It is also who we are.  As so many of our confessions have it, we are sinners by nature and by choice’ (p. 114).  See online: (accessed 4 April, 2015).
[2] See S. Donald Fortson, III and R. G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Pub., forthcoming, 2016).

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Church 8: Practicing the Presence of Pastoring

The Church 8: Practicing the Presence of Pastoring

A missing component in many churches today is, well, pastoring!  Pastoring is all about the practice of being present in people’s lives.  The word ‘pastor’, after all, is related in Greek to the word ‘shepherd’, and if there is one thing shepherds are known for it is being present with their sheep.  To illustrate the point, I will give three examples of pastoral ministry that address the importance of presence—presence with the people.

One story of pastoring that stands out in my mind is of a pastor I have known for many years.  The story is illustrative of his whole approach to pastoral ministry.  Once he visited a woman from the church at her home.  Her husband never attended the church and, as I recall, was something of a ‘deadbeat’.  When the pastor visited on one occasion, the man simply stayed in the bedroom watching television.  The pastor knocked on the bedroom door and entered the room.  He said, ‘What are you watching?’ and, without being invited, he lay down on the bed beside the man and watched television with him.  Here is an example of the importance of presence as an aspect of pastoral ministry.  One might even say ‘incarnational presence’.  To be sure, the Son of God’s becoming a man is a far richer story of incarnation than the story of a pastor flopping down beside a deadbeat husband in a low-income home to spend an hour watching television with him.  But that is the point: if this is what God the Son has done for us, should we not also understand pastoral ministry in the same way? Pastoring is an imitation of Jesus.  We read in 1 Peter,

1 Peter 5:3-4   3 Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.  4 And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.

Another story is of a large, programme-oriented church my family was a part of for a few years.  The pastor delivered excellent, pastorally sensitive messages in his sermons.  They were Biblically sound, and the size of the church was no doubt a result of his integrity as a person and his excellent teaching.  The church was not that large when he became its pastor, but the church grew year after year.  It grew to the point of having to broadcast the sermon on a screen to a separate building.  Multiple pastors had to be hired to oversee missions, education, youth, and other ministry programmes in the church.  These programmes attracted more people to the church—there was something for everyone.  And yet, in fact, week after week in the large, Sunday morning service you seldom met anyone you had ever seen before.  Worship was a regular diet of personally engaging the ministry from the platform without regarding persons around you (despite the moment in the service to ‘greet those around you’).  The actual service was well cropped to one hour, and this made it possible to fit in three services on a Sunday morning.  Worship was processed.  After the sermon—always excellent, mind you—the first part of a song from earlier in the service was sung and then the congregation dismissed (no benediction).  Had the service led to some desire for further worship or ministry, this would have been problematic.

This ‘three songs and a sermon’ Evangelicalism has grown to be fairly standard for many, and that it simply cannot sustain orthodoxy and orthopraxy in an increasingly post-Christian culture in the West should be obvious.  There is simply neither enough teaching nor real community present in such churches to meet the challenges of either life or the culture at large.  Religion is, by definition, whatever one turns to in the heights and depths of human experience.  How much more so is Christianity a faith, love, and hope in Jesus Christ to guide and sustain the traveller on such a journey?  Yet shallow Evangelicalism has no chance whatsoever of helping believers to face anything significant in life's struggles.

Nor did it in the case of one member of this church who suddenly faced major surgery.  Unable to walk, except a little in the home, he missed the one hour, weekly services that were a meagre part of his spiritual life in this church.  His wife spoke to the ministers about his situation.  There was no telephone call, card, or pastoral visit.  There was no prayer.  No person from the church came by to see the person over the months of his absence from the church, even though he had been a member for several years.

Contrast this with our own experience in a church in England.  By all accounts, the large church just described was the successful church over against this little English church of about fifty people.  It had been around for about two hundred years in a small market town.  The church was sometimes a little larger, sometimes a little smaller—like any family over the years.  Of course, everyone knew everyone else—and that made the church what it was.  The church actually practiced koinonia—fellowship in each other’s lives—on a weekly basis.  People from the church met in each other’s homes fairly often, helped each other whenever there was a challenging situation, and the pastor visited in the home almost every week.  People prayed for each other, and if someone went missing on a Sunday morning, everyone knew.  The children played together—they did not just attend a Sunday School class, which was, of course, an important part of their life in the church.

Which of these churches—the large, programme-run church or the small, family-based church—practiced the presence of pastoral ministry?  One simply cannot pastor from the pulpit.  Nor should one try, I might submit—the church needs teaching from the pulpit.  Large churches, whose pastors quite possibly at one point in their lives actually did pastor people, typically reduce their pastoral role to trying to pastor from the pulpit.  They simply fool themselves.  One of the requirements Paul set for overseers in the church was that they manage their own households well (1 Tim. 3.3-4).  Many might focus in these verses on the role of authority, but that would be to miss an essential part of what Paul had in mind.  It is precisely because the ‘church’ is not an ‘assembly’ but is a ‘family gathering’ that Paul can say this.  That is, the authority of the overseer is not the authority of someone overseeing the programmes of a large group but of a group that is intimately engaged in each other’s lives like a family.  The overseer in such a church is like the head of the household in a large family.  Such a person lives in the home with the rest of the family, is engaged in their lives, and is respected for his care and concern for each one.  What Paul says about the overseer is grounded in his understanding of the church as a family present in each other’s lives.

Quite likely, many reading this will have wonderful examples of how their church practices the presence of pastoral care.  This post is for those who have not realized that this is an essential part of church and ministry.  It is especially directed to those ministers in churches who have given up pastoring while still being seen as the pastor of the church.  The pastor who does not show up at the homes of his parishioners on a regular basis is simply not pastoring.  The pastor who is not present regularly in prayer with his people is not really a pastor.  The (supposedly) ‘successful’ pastor who has now to oversee the programmes of the large church and prepare a fine sermon each Sunday is no longer a pastor.  If someone needs a description of what it means to be a pastor, think of my friend pushing his way into a man’s bedroom, flopping on the bed beside him, and watching some ridiculous television show with him just to be there with him, to practice the presence of pastoral ministry the way Jesus did with us.

This is not to claim that pastoral ministry is only about being present, of course.  Nor is it to suppose that any kind of presence with someone is pastoral presence.  Yet what needs to be emphasized today—at least in my experience of various churches—is that many of us need to recover the practice of presence as one of the essential aspects of what it means to be a pastor.

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 from 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):