Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Church 3: Saying the Creed as the Beginning of Missionary Proclamation

The Church 3: Saying the Creed as the Beginning of Missionary Proclamation

Here is a simple request of the contemporary Church: Let us say what we believe.  Let us confess our faith with and to one another.  Let us clearly state the truth that we believe to a world that neither knows the truth nor, as often in our day in the West, believes that there is truth.  To do this, let us regularly say one of the universal Creeds—the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.[1]  In the face of denominational decline and the increase of independent churches, the tendency has been to whittle away at anything perceived to be too ‘churchy’—or ritualistic.  The result is that churches have reduced Christian worship to a few songs and a sermon.  Gone are pastoral prayers, weekly Eucharists, confession of sins—and the public confession of faith using one of the Creeds.  Yet saying a universal creed in worship is the beginning of Christian missionary proclamation.

Why Should We Say the Creed?

1. Affirming Orthodoxy.  Saying one of the universal creeds is a way of affirming orthodox faith.  In the context of considerable heterodoxy and heresy, we need to state what we believe.  If Jesus could say in his day, ‘Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Mt. 7.21), this is also true today.  Thus, not everyone claiming to be a Christian will enter the kingdom of heaven (and note that, in what Jesus says here, this has to do with ethics—in our day, we appear to need an ethical creed as well).  I once heard of a minister who would only say the Apostles’ Creed up to the statement that Jesus is dead and buried: he would not say that Jesus rose from the dead.  The creeds offer a way of determining, at the most basic level, what is Christian; those who cannot affirm them are not orthodox Christians.  These fourth century creeds are based on earlier formulations that are based on Scriptural teaching.[2]  To be sure, the creeds are not exhaustive.  They should not be seen as replacements for what Scripture teaches (something that Anabaptists rightly warned us against) but as important encapsulations of essential teaching.  There are some differences in the forms we have, such as whether to say that Jesus ‘descended into hell’ or whether we should say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Father and the Son.  Such differences might occupy some of our attention (the latter was involved with the Great Schism between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in 1054!), but they do not alter the essentials of what is affirmed in the creeds.  Mission cannot proceed if we do not know what we believe or if we cannot identify heresy.

2. Vowing to Uphold Unity Around Essentials.  Saying one of the universal creeds is a way of vowing to uphold unity in the Church around its essential teachings.  To say the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Athanasian Creed is to affirm our connection to a Church larger than ourselves.  Too many churches have little awareness of the historical Christian faith and too little concern to be related to the universal Church of Jesus Christ. In the midst of diverse Christian traditions, the Church needs certain essentials that define where unity exists.  The creeds are insufficient as theologies, and they are not codes of ethics, but they do affirm certain essentials.  Unity is not tolerance or inclusiveness: it exists around non-negotiable truths.  Denial of such truths is not an occasion to demonstrate how inclusive a community might be; denial of essential truths destroys Christian unity.  By saying a creed in unison the unity of the faith is not only affirmed but also demonstrated.  Mission is not about creating disunity by focusing on non-essentials of the faith; it entails declaring what essential teachings of the faith produce unity among believers.

 The only unity of any worth is that founded on the orthodox Christian faith: what all believers have everywhere taught at all times (as St. Vincent of Lérins defined orthodoxy).  By stating what we believe through the words of such creeds, we show our solidarity with orthodox Christianity.

3. Educating Others in and Reminding Ourselves of the Faith.  Saying one of the universal creeds teaches some and reminds others of what it is that we believe.  The educational role of the creeds in worship is important.  It is a way of helping children grow up into the faith.  It is a way of reflecting on the truths of our faith.  Mission is educational; it entails teaching what we believe.

Stating what we believe is necessary because we need to articulate what we believe clearly.  We ourselves need this—muddled thinking leads to muddled everything else.  Heresy is seldom the opposite of truth; it is usually a twisted truth.  We live at a remarkable time when all too many mainline churches in the West have abandoned and are abandoning the truth.  Their ministers have become servants of culture, like the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day who were ‘nothing but wind, for the word is not in them’ (Jer. 5.13).  ‘The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule as the prophets predict’ (Jer. 5.31).  Such a context, whether in Jeremiah’s day or ours, calls for the clear voice of truth.  We need to be able to say, ‘We do not believe that; this is what we believe….’  Some people miss the truth because they are persuaded by evil, but most persons in error are persuaded by the lure of confused thinking and misplaced desires.  To say what it is that we believe is to speak with clarity that we, as a people, might not descend into a quagmire of confusion but know what we believe.  Thus it is that we need with regularity to stand and say, ‘We believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth….’

The world also wants to know what we believe, what hope we have within us (1 Pt. 3.15).  Some want to know what we believe because they find our faith attractive, while others want to know what we believe so that they might oppose us.  All too often in our day, though, the pressure is on us to say what we believe in such a way that we sound innocuous and fairly similar to the dominant assertions of our culture and context.  The pressure on the Church is to deny its central truths, to accept alternative beliefs and lifestyles, and to become an advocate of the culture rather than a prophet to it.  Thus the world needs to know what we believe so that they might understand our witness to it or persecute us with understanding.

4. Proclaiming the Faith.  Saying one of the universal creeds is also to proclaim essential truths of the faith.  Those who wonder what makes Christians Christian can begin by listening to what they proclaim, and declaring the creeds is the beginning of missionary proclamation.  To speak what we believe is to witness our faith.  It is an opportunity for all believers to engage in basic mission, the proclamation of the faith.  Our worship should be, among other things, the beginning of missionary proclamation that we then take out into the world.


Reciting the universal creeds of the Church—the Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian Creeds—is missional in four important ways.  To do so is to (1) affirm orthodoxy; (2) vow to uphold the unity of the Church around essentials; (3) educate others and remind ourselves of the faith; and (4) proclaim the faith.  Without any of these four speech-acts, mission will falter (as we have seen in the Church’s history all too often).

[1] For the Apostles’ Creed, see:  For the Nicene Creed, see:  For the Athanasian Creed, see: Of these, the Apostles’ Creed is easiest to understand without knowledge of the Christological and Trinitarian controversies of, particularly, the fourth century.  It is shorter than the Nicene Creed, with its careful statement of orthodox teaching about Jesus’ nature.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) did not include the Athanasian Creed, as Anglicans have done.  It is a creed clarifying Trinitarian and Christological teaching in light of 4th century challenges to orthodoxy.
[2] Irenaeus and Tertullian offer us an understanding of the second century Church’s ‘Rule of Faith’—the essential teaching that became the basis for the early Church creeds (as in the perhaps 3rd century Old Roman Symbol and the 4th century Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian Creeds.  Irenaeus wrote in the second half of the second century, and Tertullian near the end of the second century and in the early third century.

Irenaeus, Book III.IV.2 (Ante-Nicene Fathers):

… carefully preserving the ancient tradition,(3) believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.

Tertullian, Prescriptions Against Heretics, XIII.1-6 (Ante-Nicene Fathers):

Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen "in diverse manners" by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Issues Facing Missions Today 19: The Daniel Diet?!

Issues Facing Missions Today 19: The Daniel Plan?!

What do Liberation Theology and the Prosperity Gospel have in common?  They both peddle a Gospel that emphasizes physical well-being.  Now we have Rick Warren, Daniel Amen, and Mark Hyman’s version of this teaching in The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013).  Just what’s wrong with this?  Well, lots.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being healthy and fit.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all be so and, for that matter, have no physical challenges at all?  It’s a great idea to eat well.  But we’re looking down the road at some seriously confused ideas about the Christian life when spiritual life is confused with diets and when clerics and churches start messing in this area.  I’d like to list several of the dangers I see, without presuming to hit on all the issues by any means.

First, this isn’t the Gospel.  This kind of an emphasis creates a refocusing on priorities.  Just what energizes us, what demands our time, what creates community in the church?  Imagine Winston Churchill standing up in Parliament during World War II to deliver an address not about the war being fought for the very life of Great Britain but about a diet plan.  Where does the ‘emphasis’ lie in the work of the Church in the world? Moreover, The Daniel Plan confusingly reconceives ‘repentance’ as ‘change your mind’ through a pathetic word study (ch. 1) and suggests that faith is self-determination (ch. 3, see below).  Not only is the emphasis off, essentials of the Gospel such as repentance and faith are redirected to dieting.  At one point, we are even told the Gospel of Dieting, ‘The good news is that God can change your mental autopilot far faster than you can.’  Now, there’s a version of the Gospel I never heard from Billy Graham.

A second problem is making this an issue in the church, tying this to the spiritual life, and creating an ethos of acceptance or rejection, of shame and approval, around body sizes and health.  By pressing an issue such as this within a community, an attitude is fostered that raises eyebrows when an overweight person enters the room.  An expectation of health and fitness associated with the Christian life is as hideous as the pressure placed on sick persons in the Prosperity Gospel.

Third, clearly people struggle with weight, health, and fitness for a large number of reasons.  Someone may be in chronic pain, have a disease, have a different metabolism or any number of health issues that makes health illusive even if the person wishes to be otherwise.  Jesus and his disciples did not travel around Galilee with a diet and health plan, leaving people feeling ostracized from the Kingdom if they didn’t get with the programme.

Fourth, the church is not conceived in Scripture as a socially superior society in terms of its members’ physical attributes.  We are not called to physical engineering any more than we are to social engineering.  The Shepherding movement in the 1970s left many people distraught because church elders became too manipulative in people’s personal lives.  Over-zealous elders gave advice about homes, finances, and marriage.  We strive for spiritual holiness, and the shepherd elders in the church are to tend the flock in this area of life, not in the petty details of their diets (1 Pt. 5.1-4).  Leaders with too little to do begin to meddle in minutiae.

Fifth, American Evangelicalism is beholden to faddism.  One year it is the Prayer of Jabez, another year it is the Left Behind Series, then it is a call to support military troops (could you imagine Jesus’ disciples riding around Israel in their ministry van with this sort of message on a bumper sticker beside their fish symbol?), and on it goes.  What will be peddled next year?  The culture itself chases the latest fads, the hottest news story, or whatever is rated at the top of the charts or in fashion.  The Daniel Plan is just one more fad pressed on a gullible public by a popular cleric.

Sixth, apparently there is money is this latest craze.  Buy a book or a T-shirt.  Accept money from a corporation for exercise equipment.  This is innocent enough at one level; it is allowing money to dictate priorities at another.

Seventh, Western culture is self-obsessed.  Narcissism is alive and well in the church too.  When Paul says, ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor. 6.19), he is not talking about personal health care but avoiding sexual immorality.

Eighth, this focus on The Daniel Plan by a church—or by a Christian organization or a Christian institution—raises questions about what policies will be set around hiring (or promoting) staff.  If a potential employee is overweight, unhealthy, or has physical problems, will that person be passed over?  If he or she has a child with special needs, is the organization going to reject the person because only the healthy keep health care costs low and model for the community the kind of person a Christian should (according to this perspective) be?

Ninth, the use of Scripture in The Daniel Plan is embarrassing. Take, for example, the use of Scripture on just one page in Chaper 3, entitled ‘Faith’.  It begins with a quote from Phl. 4.13: ‘I can do all this through him who gives me strength’ (Phl. 4.13, as quoted).  The translation is actually slightly off—what’s with the choice of various translations in this book?  The larger issue is that the text is not advocating faith that one can improve one’s life, as the chapter states.  Rather, Paul is saying that he can endure anything—even being well-fed! (v. 12)—in his devotion to the mission Christ had set before him.  Mt. 9.29, ‘According to your faith let it be done to you,’ is also co-opted for this alternative teaching.  Of course, the text has to do with healing, not a positive attitude at the beginning of a diet.  Galatians 6.9 is quoted: ‘Let’s not get tired of doing what is good….’  Paul is speaking of doing good works for others, not having the power to keep going in one’s self-help programme!  These three passages appear on just one page!  As a colleague pointed out to me, the result of Daniel’s actual diet was that he and his fellow dieters were fatter (Dn. 1.15)!

Tenth, the Old and New Testament do address gluttony and greed.  These are, however, characteristics that are associated with a larger character category than just overeating, such as the stubborn and rebellious son of Dt. 21.18ff.  Moreover, these sins are sins among others.  As another colleague said to me about this, shall we have the Zacchaeus Plan next: to give half one’s possessions to the poor and to pay back fourfold anyone that we have defrauded in the course of business (Lk. 19.8)?  Frankly, that may well be a more Biblical emphasis than a focus on one’s own diet.

In conclusion, may the diet work well for those who need a plan.  Don’t imagine it was Daniel’s.  Get it out of the church.  Stop being spiritually smug about your healthy body.  Get on with the mission of the Church.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Issues Facing Missions Today 18: The Need for Servants, Not Leaders—Not Even Servant Leaders

Issues Facing Missions Today 18: The Need for Servants, Not Leaders—Not Even Servant Leaders


Sometime in the 1970s and 1980s, many people stopped speaking about Christian ‘ministry’.[1]  People were no longer called by God into the’ ministry’, they were now trained to become ‘Christian leaders’.  Christian organizations needed leaders just like any organization.  So-called megachurches—in reality not churches but organizations with a campus and regular services and programs—needed leaders, even Chief Executive Officers.  Not only trained in theology and ministry, these leaders needed skills in how to lead, to run an organization, and to manage finances.  Moreover, to accomplish the mission of the Church, ‘out-in-front leaders’ were needed, and the woes of the Church could be stated in such a way that the problem to address was the need for Christian leaders.  In this essay, I would like to offer a brief (all too brief) sketch or partial history of the paradigm shift from ‘ministry’ to ‘leadership,’ and then I would like to offer some challenges to this.

A Sketch of the Paradigm Shift from Ministry to Leadership

So, where did we find wisdom for development of leaders the church so desperately needed?  It came from the business world—and continues to do so.  As David Dockery writes, ‘The attempts to create efficiency and order, following the patterns of corporate America, have greatly influenced the role of leaders in Christian organizations.’[2]   While aware that this observation needs expanding, such as by emphasising a more community/family model than a purely business model, Dockery states that leaders of Christian organizations must function as entrepreneurs, mediators, managers, catalysts, politicians, final arbiter, and judge.’[3]  To sum up all these roles, he settles on the term ‘administrator.’  Business books on leadership training became models for the new Christian leadership movement,[4] and the social sciences now told people how to lead well.

I somehow missed this change.  When I was in seminary between 1978 and 1981, we still spoke mostly about Christian ‘ministry’—a word meaning ‘service’ rather than suggesting power and authority.  Then I entered the dark hole of doctoral studies for seven years, and when I emerged I discovered that everybody was speaking about Christian leaders.  Actually, by then another paradigm shift had occurred. People quickly figured out that Christian leadership had to be different from more generic leadership in some critical ways.  After all, did Jesus not say, ‘many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’? (Mt. 19.30).  He actually said this a few times—it seems to have been one of his favorite points (Mt. 20.8, 16; cf. Mk. 9.35; 10.31; Lk. 13.30).  Jesus also contrasted his disciples’ ministry with the world’s leadership practices and pursuits.  When his disciples contended for greatness, Jesus said,

Mark 10:42-45   42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

So, somebody came up with the term, ‘Servant Leadership.’

Now the point seems to have been that we could still learn how to run things from the business leadership model or from politics or one of the other social sciences, but we then need to be careful to do this for other people, as a service to them.  Servant leadership was not quite what we used to mean by ‘ministry’—it wasn’t simply service but involved acquiring power and using it towards supposedly good ends.  Therein lay a cataclysmic shift in ministry: we were still with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking Jesus for power to rule as kingdom authorities instead of servants laying down their lives for others (Mk. 10.35-45).

Servant Leadership as Personal Power to Serve

A questionnaire for African Evangelicals around 1990 asked what the greatest challenge facing the Church was in Africa.  The most common answer that came back was, ‘the need for servant leaders.’  What was said in Africa was probably the sentiment of the Church worldwide.  But what were people asking?  Did they want leaders who, of course, would be servant leaders?  Or were they asking that leaders be more servant-like?  On a continent where, politically, rule often falls into the hands of a few despots who secure their authority through gifting friends—a patronage system—‘servant leadership’ could easily mean a powerful big man who had the resources to award his friends and punish his enemies.  Indeed, any hierarchical system can rather easily devolve into this despotic form of ‘servant leadership’—whether a king, a powerful sheik, a president, a bishop, the leader of a Christian organization, or a local pastor.

Personal power is also what the culture of early Christianity knew.  The culture was a patron-client culture.  Clients daily came to their patrons, who gave them a little money or helped them along a little in life, and in return they gave their allegiance and any assistance that they could to the patron.  The more successful a patron was, the more clients he would have.

This system works in western contexts too, even where there are less open personal power or patron-client relationships.  The dean of a seminary does a favor for a young faculty member, perhaps supporting him openly during a faculty review, giving him time off, or raising his pay within his pay bracket.  He then expects the faculty member to support him, do what he wishes, and be loyal in all the power plays that a faculty might experience as policies and positions are voted up or down.

Whether in Africa, antiquity, or the contemporary West, the notion of a leader runs somewhat the same.  The person who is a leader is a person who seeks and has power.  Two things distinguish leaders:  their competence to exercise this power and whether they do so for personal purposes or for others.

Jesus’ Deconstruction of Power

Is this really what the Church needs?  Is it really what Jesus was saying?  No, not at all. If this was what Jesus was saying in Mk. 10.42-45, then Jesus would have said something like the following:

‘You know that among the Gentiles they have fantastic training in leadership.  You need to learn how to exercise equal skill at leadership—just be sure to do so for other people.  Understand organizations, business principles, how to get power and how to use it.  Whoever wishes to become great needs to do so by using his or her great leadership skills for other people and not for himself or herself.  For the Son of Man came in great power and with great leadership skills, and he is using this power for other people.

There is something is a little wrong with this!  Becoming a servant is not learning how to be the master and then serving people out of a position of power.  Becoming a servant is all about giving up power in order to serve.

Jesus said that the ‘Son of Man’ came to serve and to give up his life as a ransom for many.  The ‘Son of Man’ of Daniel 7.13ff, however, was pictured as a person with divine power and authority:

Daniel 7:13-14  13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Jesus’ shocking interpretation was that this Son of Man with power from God Himself understood this power as the power of the cross: a service so powerful that it offered forgiveness of sins to the world, reconciliation to God, and the hope of resurrection life beyond the grave.  As Jn. 13 tells us, Jesus took off his cloak, put on the servant’s towel, and washed his disciples’ feet.  The Son of Man did not come to use heavenly power for good but understood that power as service: not power for service but power as service.

Not convinced?  This is precisely what Jesus’ temptation was all about after his baptism.  At his baptism, he heard the heavenly voice say, ‘This is my Son’ (Mt.3.17).  Each temptation that Jesus went through in the wilderness was over Jesus’ status as ‘Son of God.’  Satan challenged him by saying, ‘If you are the Son of God….’ (cf. Mt. 4.3, 6).  What Jesus wrestled with in the wilderness was understanding power and authority as service itself.

Jesus passed the test in the wilderness of Judea, and so he was ready when the challenge returned in the Garden of Gethsemane.  One of his disciples determined to protect Jesus and his followers by drawing a sword, and he cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave (Mt. 26.51).  Jesus’ response was,

Matthew 26:52-54   "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  54 But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?"

Jesus was not saying, ‘We need to find a way to use power for good.’  He was saying, ‘The way of the cross is God’s way.’  He was not teaching his disciples to be servant leaders, but to be servants.

A Humble Service

Just how, then, does this play out in ministry?  Jesus gave some guidance on the subject, and so did Paul.  Jesus’s first beatitude was, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 5.3).  Discipleship begins with repentance, a humble heart that knows its need for God.  Jesus opposed the haughty religious leaders of his day.  He said to his disciples,

Matthew 23:5-12  5 [The scribes and the Pharisees] do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.  6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,  7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.  9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven.  10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.  11 The greatest among you will be your servant.  12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

How do these words challenge us today?  First, ministry must not be a show of piety in order to gain others’ respect and honor.  I remember a president of a seminary in Africa wielding inordinate authority in his conduct of the seminary only to bend over double to acknowledge the authority of his bishop.  Here was a person who viewed the world through the eyes of the world, not through the eyes of Jesus.  For him, it was all about authority.  He wanted everyone under him to honour him with the same honour that he gave to anyone above him.  Everyone had their place in a hierarchy of authority, and the right thing to do was to play the part.

Paul ran into the same confused line of thinking with his Corinthian believers.  Some people in authority came bounding into their ranks and the Corinthian believers honored them with all the authority the world expects to be paid to such people.  Paul says to the Corinthian believes,

2 Corinthians 11:20 For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face.’ 

Instead, Paul and his missionary colleagues did ‘ …  not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense’ (2 Cor. 10.12).  Paul instead made his appeal to the Corinthians by the meekness and gentleness of Christ’ (2 Cor. 10.1).  Instead of pulling rank as the apostle that he is, he presents his sufferings and hardships—his weakness--as his badges of honor:

2 Corinthians 11:23-30  23 Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman-- I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.  24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea;  26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;  27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.  28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.  29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?  30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

Paul was up against ‘super apostles’ in Corinth.  They ministered out of their authority rather than out of their service, and therein lay all the difference.

The second point that Jesus makes is that the scribes and the Pharisees love titles of recognition.  Jesus tells his disciples, however, not to be called ‘rabbi,’ or ‘father,’ or ‘instructor.’  All such honor must go to God.  Paul, for his part, liked to use titles of littleness for himself.  Even the change of his name from ‘Saul’ to ‘Paul’ illustrated this.  Saul, the first king of Israel, was head and shoulders above the height of everyone else.  But the name ‘Paulus’ in Greek means ‘small.’  Paul may have been an apostle, but he says that he was so as one untimely born, the least among the apostles, and unfit to bear the name because he had persecuted the Church (1 Cor. 15.8-9).  He may have been an apostle, but he made himself a slave to all (1 Cor. 9.19).  He may have been an ambassador of the Gospel, but he was an ‘ambassador in chains’ (Eph. 6.20).  To a slave owner, Philemon, he presents himself as a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’ (Phlm. 1).  There is something very peculiar about persons studying for the degree of ‘Doctor of Ministry’ and then using the honorific and authoritative title of ‘Dr.’ in the course of their ministry.  It is as if Paul had been named ‘Paul’ by his parents and then, after graduating from the teaching of Gamaliel, took on the name ‘Saul’!  I would suggest that we who have doctorates of any sort—the ministerial D.Min. degree or the academic Ph.D. degree—refuse to use them in Church circles.  We do not stand before believers to lecture out of positions of authority granted us in titles from academic institutes.  The only basis on which we stand before others to teach is our knowledge of and faithfulness to the Scriptures and the Gospel.  As Paul said to the Galatians,

Galatians 1:8  ‘even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!’

Some Concluding Thoughts

Our authority does not reside in a degree or a title or in some ecclesiastical status.  It resides only in our faithfulness to what is authoritative in the Church, the Gospel itself.  It is a derived authority, not an authority of status.  Let the minister get his or her doctor of ministry degree or even a Ph.D. if it will improve his or her service.  But he or she should not use the title in the Church.  Jesus’ point was not hyperbolic.  It was addressing only the surface of a deep, deep problem.  The use of titles is just one, simple example of the problem.  The problem lies in the grasp for power (leadership) and the understanding that service is effective through positions of power (servant leadership) rather than that power is itself service (ministry).

[1] Already in 1975, Robert Munger wrote Leading from the Heart and Leroy Eims, once director of public ministries for The Navigators, wrote Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be.[1]  Eims stated in his book that he began his study of leadership with nineteen books from the public library and discovered while reading them that most of what they were saying was already in the Bible.[1]  In 1976, Ted Engstrom wrote a book entitled The Making of a Christian Leaders.  Ted Engstrom, The Making of a Christian Leader’ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
[2] David Dockery, ‘Introduction,’ in Christian LeadershipEssentials: A Handbook for Managing Christian Organizations,’ ed. David Dockery (Nashville, TN: B&H Pub., 2011), p. 5.
[3] Ibid.  He also mentions that Christian leaders are servants, quoting Mk. 10.45, although what this means for administrators is left unstated.
[4] The ‘Christian Leadership Alliance’ identifies its beginnings with the first meeting of the ‘Christian Financial Executives Association’ in 1976.  Online: (accessed 17 August, 2014).  The concerns of this association were the need for ‘professional growth’ and ‘practical understandings of business fundamentals among nonprofit ministry leaders.’  Also, ‘their ultimate goal was to provide practical training from a biblical perspective on how to run better Christian organizations.’  Just how the Bible is understood to teach people to ‘run Christian organizations’ must be a fascinating study in hermeneutics.  Annual membership costs a mere $3,000 per year.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Issues Facing Missions Today 17: Six Uses and Misuses of Scripture in Leadership Studies

Issues Facing Missions Today 17: Six Uses and Misuses of Scripture in Leadership Studies


Just how might someone go about using Scripture to discuss leadership?  We have seen an endless stream of publications on ‘leadership’ in the Church since the 1970s.[1]  The Church has, of course, always been concerned with ministers and ministry, but the language of ‘leadership’ is a more recent focus.  A fascinating study of these ‘leadership’ books would be to examine them in light of how they have engaged Scripture and what other authorities (such as the social sciences) they use to make their case for the characteristics and practices of so-called Christian leadership.  This could, actually, be a master’s thesis.  Instead, I would like to tickle out several hermeneutical issues for those who have undertaken or intend to undertake this task. 

Six Ways to Use and Misuse Scripture for Leadership Studies:

First, one might discuss Biblical passages that directly address ‘leadership’—at least in theory.  This will not accomplish much, however, since ‘leadership’ is not a Biblical term of any substance for Christian ministry in the New Testament.  There were no Christian ‘organizations’ in the early Church.  There was some sort of apostolic authority, if we might consider Acts 15 as an example of its function.  Yet churches in Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia, for example, did not set themselves under the authority of Jerusalem leadership.  Any consideration of leadership will have to be focussed on the local church, and in such a case the language of ‘leadership’ was not much employed.

It may be in view in Rom. 13.8, although the function of having care for persons might be more in view than having authority over people in the word the NRSV translates as ‘leader’ (Greek, proistamenos).[2]  ‘Leaders’ (Greek, hēgoumenoi) does appear in Hebrews 13: the believers are exhorted to remember, obey, and submit to them (vv. 7, 17).  These are not absolute statements.  Whatever ‘remember’ means (financially?, honouring them?), believers are to do this because these persons spoke the word of God to them (apparently initial evangelism is in view here).  Obedience has to do with obeying those who have the responsibility of watching over believers’ souls.  For this, the leaders will have to give an account, and they should fulfill their roles with joy and not groaning.  In other words, submission is not to anything such a leader says but is to a leader who is doing what he is supposed to do.  These verses constitute the main passages using the term ‘leader.’  This could be expanded by looking for other terms implying some role of authority in the local church, such as ‘overseer/bishop,’ ‘elder’ (possibly the same role as overseer/bishop), and deacon in the Pastoral epistles.  The point, however, is that this language of leadership is minimal in the New Testament.

One might, second, look at passages that touch on certain types of leadership, such as ‘king’ (as in the selection of David over Saul as king in 1 Sam. 16), ‘prophet’ (as in Jeremiah’s frequent criticism of the false prophets of Israel), ‘apostle’ (as in 1 Cor. 9), ‘teacher’ (as in James 3.1), and ‘elders’ (as in 1 Pt. 5.1-5).  This approach, then, could include a study of specific titles for ‘leaders’.  The challenge in using such texts is in taking what is said about these roles and applying them to any leader.  Does what is said of a king really apply to a pastor or leader of a Christian ministry?

A third approach might be to study certain persons in Scripture who could be said to have exercised leadership—Abraham, David, Jesus, Paul, etc.[3]  Such an approach is a more narrative and character approach to the question of leadership.  It proceeds by exploring analogies between the story and characters in it to some other situation.  The problem with this approach lies in whether these texts are meant to teach something about what we call leadership at all.  What happens in such a case is that the particularities of certain characters and their roles are abstracted into something more generic called ‘leadership’ and then recontextualized for particular types of leadership—pastor, director, administrator, dean, etc.  One has to present an argument why the lives of great Biblical persons are to be taken as examples for someone else’s life or a different role.  We might assume that, to some extent, they are, but we might equally assume that there are some aspects of their lives that are not analogous to the lives of others.  All too often, however, some writer willy-nilly grasps some aspect of King David’s life and applies it to some leadership role in Christian organizations or the church today.

A fourth approach might be to study metaphors for leaders in Scripture.  Paul’s metaphors include ‘father,’ ‘mother,’ and ‘nurse.’  Peter speaks of elders as ‘shepherds’ 1 Pt. 5.1-5—a long-standing image for leaders in antiquity.  One potential error in an approach focussed on metaphors would be in using metaphors beyond the limits of their use in Scripture.  One might, for example, note that Peter uses the image of shepherd for elders in the sense of their tending the flock (pastoral care), leading by example and not authoritatively, and remembering that shepherds are hired hands of the Chief Shepherd (Jesus).  That shepherds might break the leg of a lamb and kill sheep is not part of the analogy carried over to a positive description of the role of elders!  Indeed, all metaphors eventually break down, and those using Biblical metaphors in ways beyond their use in Scriptures have ceased to use Scripture as a divinely authoritative Word and are guilty of inserting their own notions into a Biblical metaphor.  Moreover, any focus on a single metaphor to the exclusion of both other metaphors and other texts could result in a skewed discussion of the subject.   Blaine McCormick and David Davenport have even taken a single text, Psalm 23—not a psalm about leadership!—as the basis for a book on ‘Shepherd Leadership.’[4]

A fifth approach that one often sees in the literature on leadership involves proof-texting Scripture.  In such a case, a general view of leadership is presented and Scriptural texts are muscled into support of this or that idea.  The framework or theory derives from something other than Scripture, but Biblical passages are used to support various points within the overall theory.  This is the same as approaching Scripture with a systematic theology.  Individual texts are used to support the overall system, but no text actually teaches the whole system of theology.  Some parts of the system are presented because they are logical, and no Scripture is put forward to support it.  The problem, then, is that Scripture might support some of the pieces of the theory, but it does not support the theory itself.  Another problem is that often the Scripture that is used does not, in fact, say what it is claimed to say.  Books on pastoral theology, such as leadership studies, do not happily entertain a detailed exegesis of these texts.  Any question as to their meaning is side-lined; if the words sound as though they somehow address the point, this is sufficient for most readers.  Often, the points are drawn from some leadership principles derived from the social sciences, and Scripture actually only functions illustratively, not authoritatively, even though readers simply and wrongly often assume that a reference to Scripture entails an authoritative use of it.  A further problem with such an approach is that it does not properly attend to Biblical authors’ views.  Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel offers a strong critique of any notion of leadership at all (Mt. 20.25-28; ch. 23).  Indeed, his metaphors for discipleship are child, little one, servant, etc  (especially in Mt. 17.24-20.28).[5]  A proper use of Scripture will attend to what various authors in Scripture say, not how verses from various authors might be strung together in some theory of leadership to which none of them would likely subscribe.  Finally, some passages that do apply to the subject may no longer apply to present readers.  Not all Old Testament texts still apply to the New Testament era.  ‘Leadership’ texts about kings, priests, the nation, and so forth in the Old Testament likely do not apply directly to the Church, if at all. 

Sixth, one might use Scripture to draw out certain values, virtues, and principles that may be applicable to ministry and community life.  The interpreter might be on more solid ground in describing these; the challenge arises in applying these in some way that is not explicit in the text.  That is, the exegesis of the text might be sound; if any dispute arises, it will be more in the area of hermeneutics (our use of the text).  John Stott, for example, wrote a book entitled Basic Christian Leadership: Biblical Models of Church, Gospel and Ministry.[6] The argument he presents is based on a study of 1 Corinthians 1-4.  Paul was not, of course, writing about ‘basic Christian leadership’ in 1 Corinthians.  Yet he says things about the church and ministry, to be sure.  The challenge, then, is not to assume some notion such as ‘leadership’ that might not be a very New Testament concept, apply virtues and values from 1 Corinthians 1-4 to this notion, and then claim that one has described Biblical leadership for Christian ministry.  A parallel might be to assume that Christians should engage in holy war, exegete some text or texts describing Christian values and virtues, and then claim that, when these are applied to holy war one has a Biblical view of holy war.


My own view is that the language of ‘leadership’ for Christian ministry is misguided—a point I have argued elsewhere.  Here, I have argued that much use of Scripture in an attempt to describe Christian or Biblical leadership is fraught with hermeneutical challenges.  The six approaches to the use of Scripture for practical theology may or may not be appropriate to certain topics in pastoral or applied theology.  In the case of leadership studies, authors regularly fall into bad habits of Biblical interpretation.  The major problem, however, is the uncritical acceptance of the notion of leadership at all when speaking of Christian ministry.

[1] Robert Munge, Leading from the Heart (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975).  Leroy Eims, Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be (Wheaton: Victor, 1975).
[2] The NRSV adds the term ‘leaders’ in its translation of Gal. 2.2.  The ESV translates the phrase more literally as ‘those who were of reputation’—an awkward translation.  The same is true of Gal. 2.6—no term for ‘leader’ appears in the Greek.
[3] An example of this is Leroy Eimes, Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be.  Eimes begins by describing Moses in his leadership role.
[4] Blaine McCormick and David Davenport, Spiritual Leadership: Wisdom for Leaders from Psalm 23 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003).  A more Biblically contextual and sociological study of Shepherd Leadership is offered by Tim Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).  See also Timothy Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (P&R Publishing, 2010).
[5] Rollin G. Grams, 'Not 'Leaders' but 'Little Ones' in the Father's Kingdom: The character of discipleship in Matthew's Gospel,' Transformation 2004 (21.2): 114-125.
[6] John Stott, Basic Christian Leadership: Biblical Models of Church, Gospel and Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: Considering Jesus' Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection in Dialogue with Islam--Three Books Edited by David Emmanuel Singh

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: Considering Jesus' Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection in Dialogue with Islam--Three Books Edited by David Emmanuel Singh

David Emmanuel Singh of the Oxford Centre for Evangelism and Mission has recently edited and published his third book engaging Christian teaching about Jesus in Islamic contexts.  

I was able to contribute an essay in each of the three volumes.  My titles, and the titles of the three books, are as follows:

Rollin G. Grams, ‘God, the Beneficent--the Merciful, and Jesus’s Cross: From Abstract to Concrete Theologising,’ in Jesus and the Cross: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts, ed. D. Singh.  Oxford: Regnum/Paternoster, 2008.

Rollin G. Grams, ‘Revealing Divine Identity: The Incarnation of the Word in John’s Gospel,’ in Jesus and the Incarnation: Reflection of Christians from Islamic Contexts, ed. David Singh.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011.

Rollin G. Grams, ‘‘Jesus Christ, raised from the dead’ (2 Tim. 2.8): Exploring Key Differences over Beliefs about the Resurrection Between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,’ in Jesus and the Resurrection: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts, ed. David Singh (Oxford: Regnum Press, 2014): 113-128.

A theme running through each of my essays is that Christian theology is—or needs to be—concrete.  Theology must not work from general, abstract categories of thought but rather be grounded in and arise from the particular, concrete contexts, texts, and history of the faith.  Weak parallels might be drawn out between Christianity and Islam if one keeps theology at a general and abstract level.  This, however, requires reading against the Biblical text and the very concrete reality of Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, and raised from the dead.

Essays in these volumes do not necessarily agree with one another, and those interested in this subject of Christian and Islamic dialogue will find a variety of approaches, topics, and views within the general subject area.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Church 2: Congregational Singing as the Formation and Confession of Convictions

The Church 2: Congregational Singing as the Formation and Confession of Convictions


The mission of the Church involves more than evangelism; it also involves forming people in the faith.  Music plays an important role in both activities of mission.  I would, however, venture to say that most Christians would put singing during the church service in the category of ‘worship’.  Yet singing is also a Christian practice for the formation and confession of convictions.  Simply put, singing is one of the primary ways in which most believers learn and affirm what they believe. If so, we’re probably in trouble.  

Why Have so Many in the Congregation Stopped Singing?

While anecdotal and, no doubt, a culturally sensitive issue, in my experience in American, Evangelical churches I find that fewer and fewer people sing.  This is not my experience in Africa or Europe.  So, what’s going on in America (if, indeed, I am right about this)?  I have some suggestions, but they do not necessarily explain all the cultural differences that I think I have noticed.

I would venture, nevertheless, to say that there are several reasons for the decrease in congregational singing in America.  First, children no longer have a regular music class in school, resulting in a culture that does not sing in groups.  Second, church music has become professionalized, so that worshipers are spectators or an audience that joins in the music from the stage.  Those who do not have musical talent are forced into a more passive posture.  Third, worshipers do not know the songs due to the penchant for the latest songs.  Fourth, the larger the congregation, the more anonymous a person becomes in a crowd.  While this might encourage some timid souls to sing out more, apparently the more likely response is not to feel a need to contribute to the group’s singing.  Fifth, undoubtedly some simply are apathetic, wondering what the point of the whole exercise is anyway.  This may have to do with the distancing of singing from actual worship: the challenge in any church service is to connect an action with an actual religious practice—to connect singing with the practice of worship.

Who Controls the Curriculum of Christian Music?

If we are to understand singing in the church service as a lay theology class, a time to form and express our convictions as Christians, then we really need to ask what credentials our ‘theological educators’—the song writers and church worship leaders—have.  We need to ask whether the catchy tune or the theological depth of the words rules the writing and the choice of Christian music.  Churches that grow large in America, England, and South Africa—my more recent places to live—are churches with contemporary music played by a band on the stage (‘stage’ is a much better word than ‘platform’ to describe the architecture of many modern Christian worship spaces).  If Paul had to face off against the Sophists of Greek culture, with their rhetorical skills trumping the substance of what they were actually saying, today we have to face off against the purveyors of popular music over against songs and hymns that have much theological depth.  This is like the church that goes wild with the visiting Evangelist, with his sensational stories and wild claims while the pastor, charged with feeding his church with a balanced diet of good food, slumps lower and lower in his chair, praying that the damage being done to his congregation is reparable.  (I’m thinking of some traditions more than others in this last example, where travelling evangelists are a feature of church life.  Ask: ‘Which does a congregation prefer more: the travelling evangelist or the Bible teacher?’)

Why Keep Changing the Songs?

One feature of contemporary Christian music in the worship service is the compulsion to find the latest songs.  Chasing whatever is trending is a feature of Western culture and urban life.  If, however, people are to internalize the ‘theology’ of music, they need to become familiar with the good songs and hymns, having the words in their heads and the music in their hearts.  In this way, music functions as both a confession of the faith and as a stimulant for faith.  Hymnals used to function as deposits of a tradition’s faith; the latest songs on a screen undermine the important practice of ‘traditioning’ the believers.  Churches that have jettisoned the congregation’s reciting of the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed have, typically, jettisoned the hymnal.  In a day and age in which one of the most important things a congregation needs to do is declare what, indeed, it does believe, practices to help them do so have been dropped from the worship service.

The faith, to be sure, is living.  Dead orthodoxy is not the goal here.  Introducing a great new piece of music into the worship of a congregation is a positive contribution to worship.  These should not, however, replace the theologically deep songs that connect the current congregation with the larger church, both the global church and the historical faith.  The practice of ‘new music’ may leave new believers without a grounding in the universal Church and with an openness to anything else new, without any ability to filter out the bad from the good.


Where music in the congregation lacks connectivity with the historical and global Church, the mission of the Church is undermined.  When new believers are not trained in the tradition of the Church, a very dangerous precedent to chase the latest winds of doctrine and practice is established.  The need to know the faith and believe it from the heart requires taking great care as to what is sung and confessed regularly.  Musicians are theologians of the local church, and the more their models are contemporary rock bands, the more trouble the Church will face in a culture that prefers mode of expression over truth and theological depth.  The argument I’ve put forward here is that the tasks in Christian mission of proclaiming the faith and nurturing people in the faith involve congregational singing that contributes to the formation and heartfelt confession of Christian convictions.  On this understanding, music is mission.