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.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Church 12: We are All Anabaptists Now

The Church 12: We are All Anabaptists Now

Postmodernity, wrote Jean Francois Lyotard, entails an incredulity towards metanarratives.[1]  We might put this the other way around.  Postmodernity find mininarratives credible.  That is, that a story gives meaning to one’s own life is sufficient to make it right or true, without regard to some larger understanding.  Simply put, we create our own meaning and identity.

Constructed Identity, Not Universal, Natural Law

This way of thinking has now reached the level of the Supreme Court (Obergefell v. Hodges, 26 June, 2015).[2]  One might say that this is not the first time the court has interpreted law in light of postmodern thinking, but the decision announced today to legalize same-sex ‘marriage’ is a prime example of postmodern logic.  Marriage is what we say it is, not what God established in creation.

We need to recognize, however, that what we refer to today as postmodern is a perspective that has long been with Western society.  The focus of Modernity was on establishing universal laws and principles through a scientific rather than faith-based mode of argument.  The undermining of faith and the affirmation of rational argument, particularly scientific investigation, required a freedom from established social and intellectual conventions.  After doubt regarding what came before so as to argue from incontrovertible foundations (the Cartesian method) came a prioritizing of liberty among the other values.  Freedom was a way to pursue a different path from the social forces that used to direct society, as exemplified in the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century.  Freedom came to entail a personal pursuit of happiness, a construction of one’s own identity.  This pursuit of freedom ran alongside scientific exploration, although the two were not by any means in full accord.  If science found that something was an incontrovertible fact, those who wished to resist a universal, natural, and objective metanarrative found their freedom challenged.

Indeed, postmodernity believes that identity is constructed, not handed down to us by religion, government, science, or anything else.  We have in recent weeks discovered some fascinating examples of the idea that we can construct our own identities.  One man insists that his sexual identity is not confined to his biological make-up but is rather something that he can construct.  A woman of European descent determines that she should be able to define her identity in terms of her own choice, and so decides to consider herself black.

The reason I earlier suggested that the Supreme Court has already ventured into this arena of postmodern thought was in the case of Roe v. Wade (1973).  The court decided that being considered human was not based on having life alone but also on viability—the viability of the foetus.  It also found that a woman’s rights were to be considered in this matter: a woman had the right to determine whether or not to ‘terminate a pregnancy.’  In this decision, the meaning of human life was restricted by independence (the child’s freedom from its mother by being able to live on its own) and rights (the woman’s freedom to choose what she wished to do with her foetus).  Thus the Supreme Court at that time moved in the direction of the logic of construction of one’s own identity rather than affirm a more universal understanding of human life.

Today’s decision by the Supreme Court was a major affirmation of constructed identity.  If two people of the same sex wish to ‘marry,’ then they have the ‘right’ to construct their own meaning of marriage.  In antiquity, Stoic philosophers argued that identity was God-given.  One of their terms for homosexuality was ‘against nature’ (para physis).  Thus, one philosophical tradition without any Christian influence opposed homosexuality on the grounds that it was not according to nature or the laws God had written into creation.  This was precisely what Jews and Christians at the time argued from a different tradition of moral thought—a theological tradition based on the Old Testament.  They believed that God’s purposes in and definition of marriage were to be found in his creating male and female for marriage to one another (Gen. 2.24).  This is also the basis for Paul’s opposition to homosexuality in general in Rom. 1.24-28.

What we find today, however, is an incredulity towards a creation metanarrative.  The culture’s conviction that we can construct our identities runs fully against the Biblical teaching that God made things a certain way and that humans were not to go against this.  The idea that we can construct our identity is something that came to full expression over one hundred years ago in the West in Existentialist philosophy.  Existentialists taught that humans were ‘thrown’ into existence, that their existence precedes essence.  So, for instance, in Friedrich Nietzsche's view, the 'superman' was the one who exercised his will freely; he created his own identity (see Thus Spoke Zarathustra).  Or, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s view, we begin with ‘nothingness’ and need to create our ‘being’ through our own choices and actions (see Being and Nothingness).  This means that we do not begin with some definition of ourselves to be found in nature or God’s laws but that, through the decisions we freely make, we construct our essence, our identity.

Thus, what Christians in the West now face is a suppression of their ‘metanarrative’ of creation and an opposition to a God who has his laws that stand against one’s freedom to define things according to the way he or she desires.  We Christians, instead, believe that God made us and that we are, as the Old Testament often says, to walk in his ways.  As Paul says, ‘…you are not your own’ (1 Cor. 6.19).  We find ourselves challenging a culture that lives by the value of freedom without regard for God.

Limits of Engagement and Church Discipline

Love is a major part of the Christian life.  We are called to unity in Christ and to show love for those outside the faith.  Yet love is not to be diluted into our culture’s affirmation of tolerance—an affirmation arising out of the conviction that everyone gets to construct his or her own identity.  Indeed, ‘love’ for Christians has more to do with directing people back to the God of all creation, showing them what it is to live—to find life!—in his ways, and telling them the good news that Jesus died for their sins and that the Holy Spirit is given to enable them to live righteous and holy lives. 

This is also why church discipline is so necessary: those claiming to be believers are not free to live however they wish in the Christian community (as we see Paul argue in 1 Cor. 5).  Christian love, if Biblical, is based on living according to God’s precepts.  As Jesus said to his disciples, ‘"If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14.15).  The notion, touted by some, that the church should be welcoming to homosexuals living in homosexual marriages is not Biblical—no more so than accepting persons willfully practicing bestiality or living in incestuous relationships—two other examples of adults exercising their freedom in sexual matters.  We need to extend these examples to other sins than just sexual sins, of course.  Persons struggling to become free of sin are certainly to be welcomed and helped, but persons willfully continuing in their sin and denying that their actions are sinful are to be excommunicated. 

Excommunication is a loving gesture to show willfully sinful people that their way leads to ultimate judgement (1 Cor. 5.5) and exclusion from the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6.9-11).  If the person is simply welcomed into fellowship, this toleration of sin will give the person a mistaken conviction that God, too, will not judge him or her.  (Similarly, to discipline children playing with fire to teach them that fire is dangerous and that they will be burned is a loving thing to do.  If someone does not believe fire burns and sees playing with it a beautiful thing, he or she may think such discipline is abusive.) 

Moreover, failure to offer loving judgement[3] of persons continuing to live in willful sin undermines the purity of the community of believers in Christ.  Paul sees the church as ‘unleavened bread,’ a community that has prepared itself to celebrate the Passover of Christ’s sacrifice (1 Cor. 5.7-8).

1 Corinthians 5:6-8  6 Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?  7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  

The holiness of the community must be upheld, and the church is not a community without standards of membership.  Some expect this to be the case, since their postmodern notion of community and Christian unity is that everyone accepts everyone else no matter what.

To get at a Christian understanding of community, consider two golf courses.  One golf course is owned by a wealthy club with exclusive membership, such as only for men with a certain income.  The other golf course is open to any players.  Some people think that Christian standards of community make it like the club-owned course.  In actual fact, the church is more like the second golf course: everyone is welcome.  Both golf courses, however, expect and require persons to play golf on the course.  If several people showed up at either golf course to play Frisbee instead of golf, they would be disrupting the purpose of the golf course.  Christians welcome people into their midst, but their purpose is to create a righteous community that walks in the ways of the Lord.  For a person entering into such a community but willfully sinning—whether through unjust business practices or homosexual practice—would be like a Frisbee player showing up at a golf course that welcomes everyone to play golf.

Attending homosexual ‘weddings’ (‘But he is a relative!’) is just one example of compromise of Christian witness that believers are already having to consider.  One might be tempted to argue in this case that Christians should not judge those outside the faith, only those inside (so 1 Cor. 5.9-11), and so attend such a wedding ceremony.  However, attending a homosexual wedding goes way beyond not judging—it involves a level of affirmation similar to participating in idol worship.  We should doubt that John the Baptist (or Jesus) would have attended Herod Antipas’s wedding ceremony: he divorced his wife in order to marry his sister-in-law (Mark 6.18).  The argument that we should not participate in some sinful practice is one already put forward with the photographers and bakers who do not want to support an act that is sinful.  Persons withdrawing money from Wells Fargo bank or no longer buying Tylenol because of their promotion of homosexuality in television advertisements are doing so not because these companies serve all customers but because they are advocating a sinful way of life (these are two recent examples in the USA).  The early Corinthian believers had questions similar to these: should they attend ceremonies (banquets, birthday parties, etc.) with their unbelieving neighbours when a god or goddess was also part of the celebration?  To this question, eating food sacrificed to idols, Paul gave a clear answer when it involved affirmation of or participation in such ceremonies, ‘No!’ Believers could eat meat sacrificed to idols bought in the marketplace—when the food did not involve participation in or celebration of idolatry.  But there were in no way to eat food sacrificed to idols in the context of celebration or worship of the god or goddess (1 Cor. 8-10).  The Xhosa asking whether he as a Christian can 'go to the mountain' (to participate in religious ceremonies of manhood) is asking the same question in a different cultural context: ‘Can a Christian participate in ceremonies that lead to accepting him as a man within the community but that also involve non-Christian activities, such as sacrifice?’  Paul also appears to be addressing the subject in 2 Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 6:14-18   14 Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?  15 What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?  16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, "I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  17 Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you,  18 and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."

Such a theological argument extends beyond engaging in temple worship with others in society; it has to do with limitations on Christian engagement within society.  While we should leave judgement to God of those living against his ways, we equally should not celebrate or participate in their sinful acts.

The Gospel, moreover, offers real change, not just forgiveness of sins (1 Cor. 6.11).  But the church that thinks it is doing well by showing unconditional love to persons willfully continuing in sin is a church that has affirmed that we create our own identity and receive God’s smile of approval for our creativity and exercise of freedom.  It is also a church that denies the power of God to transform sinners.  Here, too, mission in the West runs contrary to the culture.  The Gospel message is not only that God forgives us for our sins—and homosexual practice is a sin—it is also about the life-changing power of God at work through the Holy Spirit in our lives to release us from what binds us and frees us to walk in the ways of the Lord.  This is good news.


Postmodern, Western culture is the culmination of an experiment in freedom initiated already in the Enlightenment.  It parted from the universal, science-based, affirmation of some metanarrative or other that defined Modernity.  It affirmed the construction of identity over whatever claims were made in Modernity and whatever claims were made in religious faith.  It has come to see sexual identity as constructed.  With today’s announcement by the Supreme Court that same-sex coupling can be considered to be marriage, we have another example of an authority understanding freedom as license and identity as locally (individually or socially) constructed.  This argument is easily applied to incestuous and polygamous marriages.  It probably also applies to bestial relationships and the pornography industry.  As long as ‘freedom’ is protected, what is to limit one’s own construction of a sexual identity or one’s own definition of what constitutes ‘marriage’?

Christian mission to the West, then, faces several new realities.  It is a mission in a post-Christian society.  It is conducted by a minority community facing increasing opposition from the larger society.  It challenges a Western notion of freedom.  It finds itself announcing a universal message—the Gospel for all people—to solve a universal problem—sin.  In order to do so, it claims that there is a universal right and wrong established in the sovereign will of the Creator.  This is experienced by Postmodern society as simply incredulous, since the assumption is that truth is local, that identity is constructed—even sexual identity.  Christian mission to the West also includes a challenge to understand the nature of community—a righteous community living to please God over against the culture’s notion of community as tolerance and acceptance of a spectrum of diverse views and practices.

How, then, should we live?  Christians can be glad that there is an increasing clarity about what it means to be a Christian.  In previous generations in the West, the faith was regularly compromised as the Church, government, and society negotiated a political settlement about how to live within ‘Christendom.’  There is simply no room left for such compromises: we are now all Anabaptists.  (Anabaptists are known for, among other things, refusing to compromise Biblical, Christian faith and practice in the face of pressure from governments and society—including established, state-sanctioned churches.  They lived against the grain of culture where it was contrary to Biblical teaching.  Unlike Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics in the 16th century, they saw the Church as radically separate from the State and were often persecuted.)  This frees us to bear a clearer witness, even if persecution comes with the package.  This also brings with it a needed purifying of the Church.  And it also means that we have a challenge not only to offer a particular message to a hostile culture but also to offer a new vision of community to it.  The new, post-Christian climate in the West calls for Christians to stop attending church and start being the Church.  In all this, we have a tremendous task ahead.  Our efforts are best spent not bemoaning the demise of the society in which we live but in getting on with our mission of being God’s people for this time and place and proclaiming the good news in Jesus Christ that our sins can be forgiven and our lives transformed by the power of the Spirit at work in us and through us.

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984; French, 1979), p. xxiv.
[3] One often hears people say that Christians do not judge.  Behind this statement lies a serious confusion regarding several Biblical texts.  First, when Jesus said, ‘Do not judge’ (Matthew 7.1), he was not uttering an absolute statement.  He finished the sentence with ‘so that you may not be judged.’  He went on to warn against hypocrisy.  He further said that one should not point out the speck in someone else’s eye when one has a log in one’s own eye.  In other words, Jesus was not saying we should not judge because everything is alright, there is no such thing as sin, let’s tolerate or celebrate each other’s decisions and actions.  Rather, he was warning not to be hypocritical when judging.  Another passage to consider comes from the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ (Matthew 6.12).  The point is not that there is no such thing as sin but that we should forgive others because God has forgiven us.  Christians offer a message of forgiveness for sin, not a denial that certain actions are sinful and so should be affirmed.  A third passage to consider is one discussed in this essay, 1 Cor. 5.9-11.  Paul says that Christians should not associate with sexually immoral people (v. 9). He qualifies this statement by saying that this does not mean that Christians should not associate with sexually immoral people outside the church, ‘since you would then need to go outside the world’ (v. 10).  Rather, he says, this applies to persons claiming to be believers who are sexually immoral—and then he extends the list of sins to other than sexual sins (v. 11).  He concludes, ‘Do not even eat with such a one’ (v. 11).  His view on judgement is summarized in vv. 12-13: ‘For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  13 God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you."’

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Church 11: Christian Mission to the Post-Christian West

The Church 11: Christian Mission to the Post-Christian West


Early Christian mission was far more than a theological challenge to Jewish and Graeco-Roman belief systems.  Our understanding of mission in terms of presenting a message about Jesus Christ and a challenge to believe that message to some extent accurately reflects the kind of missional preaching we find in the book of Acts.  Yet Acts also tells us that early Christian mission was not merely about what one believed; it was also about repentance and the transformation of one’s life.  Peter concludes the first missionary discourse in Acts by telling his audience what the expected response is to the Gospel message about Jesus Christ that he has just preached:

Acts 2:38-39  Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him."

Indeed, early Christian mission was also a direct personal and social challenge to Jewish and Graeco-Roman society.  Such challenges do not come without a hostile reaction from society.

In our day in Western society, there is a turning from what people have believed about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a rejection of the Christian way of life, and a hostility to orthodox Christians.  In this context, Christian missionary efforts are hampered from some within the Church.  Unbelievers are confused about what a Christian really is when persons (including scholars and ministers) teach against the Church’s long-held teaching and practices that are Biblically founded.  At the same time, society at large has an increasing antagonism towards Christians themselves.  The early Church, however, was able to advance the Church—its beliefs and ethics—in the context of antagonism and persecution.

The question for missions today is the one that the early Church had as well: ‘How should Christians engage in the Christian mission as they (1) present the message of the Gospel, (2) challenge social and ethical aspects of the culture, and (3) negotiate the Church’s own status in a somewhat hostile and post-Christian culture?’  This essay will address these questions in reverse order.  The fact that the early Church was facing the same questions in its day should lead us back to the writings of the Church Fathers (to about the early 500s).

Proclaiming God’s Word in a Hostile Context

John the Baptist and Jesus

Proclamation of the Kingdom of God began during a time of foaming political and social unrest in Israel.  The alternative ‘Kingdom of God’ was welcomed by average people as much as it was deemed insurrectionist by political rulers.  John the Baptist and Jesus were both executed by the government—by Herod Agrippa and Pontius Pilate, respectively.  John the Baptist met his death because his moral message (‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,’ Mark 1.4), when applied to King Herod Agrippa, was offensive.  Herod had married his brother’s wife (Mark 6.18).  He had actually divorced his first wife in the process, and so the wording in Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus’ teaching on divorce could especially apply to Herod: ‘And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery’ (Matthew 19.9).  Jesus’ death came at the hands of Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate, and so it was a political matter.  His message involved proclaiming the coming of God’s rule through him, and so he called people to believe this message and to believe in him.  Yet his proclamation of the reign of God was also to a great extent a moral preaching, as John’s was.  Jesus proclaimed, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1.15).

Faithful Jews and the Prophets of God of Whom the World Was Not Worthy

John the Baptist and Jesus were continuing a pattern set much earlier by Israel’s righteous martyrs and the prophets of God.  1 and 2 Maccabees tells the story of faithful Jews martyred for their faith in the 2nd c. BC.  Books like Esther and Daniel tell of persecution during the earlier time of the exile.  Still earlier, Isaiah understood his prophetic ministry to be one of constant opposition from the Jews themselves (Isaiah 6.9-10).  Hebrews 11.35-38 summarizes the history of faithful Jews, persecuted for their faith, and it in particular has the prophets in view.

Hebrews 11:35-38   35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--  38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Isaiah, for example, was said to have been arrested by King Manasseh and sawn in two while false prophets and leaders exulted (Martyrdom of Isaiah 5 and Lives of the Prophets, both from c. AD 100).  The Lives of the Prophets also tells of the deaths of other prophets, several of whom were martyred:

·         Jeremiah was stoned to death in Egypt by Jews
·         Ezekiel was killed by Jewish leaders in Babylonian exile because he accused them of idolatry
·         Micah was thrown from a cliff by King Joram because he accused him of following in the wicked ways of his father King Ahab
·         Amos was often beaten by Amaziah, priest of Bethel, and finally delivered a deadly blow with a cudgel by Amaziah’s son
·         Zechariah son of the priest, Jehoidah (cf. 2 Chronicles 24.20), was killed (stoned) beside the altar by King Joash because he said, ‘Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has also forsaken you’ (2 Chron. 24.20)

The Early Church

Persecuted Christians found themselves picking up the narrative of the persecuted righteous, of whom the world was not worthy.  Contrary to Christians with a Christendom narrative, they did not see themselves as a majority maintaining control of a culture, or as a group that needs to try to regain recently lost authority.  They saw themselves as a moral, persecuted minority.

Paul went so far as to say, ‘Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Timothy 3.12).  The emphasis for Paul is not on what one believes but how one lives (eusebōs) in this passage, although it would be wrong to make too much of a distinction between theology and ethics.  The early Church faced waves of local and universal persecution until the Emperor Constantine in AD 312.  Nearly 300 years of persecution gave rise to an ‘apologetic’ literature that sought to explain Christianity to the larger society.  Learning to articulate the faith in a hostile context is something that the Church in our day needs to practice because nothing can still be assumed on the part of the larger culture.  That is, the Church is increasingly at odds with Western culture, and we need to learn how to dialogue intelligently with the newly emerged, post-Christian culture.

Teaching God’s Righteousness in an Amoral or Immoral Culture

Where Christianity is coming into conflict with Western culture most is in the area of social and personal ethics.  Beliefs are, peculiarly, often considered private and independent from behaviour, and so the focus is more on Christian social and personal ethics by Western culture.  The early Church found particular opposition to its sexual ethics, refusal to abort or kill children, distancing itself from the gods of the age and social practices associated with them (socially correct worship in a given city and religious engagement in festivities), and Christians’ refusal to serve in the military.  Oddly, in my view, the last of these is not on the agenda of many American Christians.  Yet in many of the issues facing the Church, Christians today are once again finding themselves having to proclaim a message of righteousness that cuts right into the social and personal morality of contemporary culture.  Mission in Western countries, then, needs to be understood more and more as a message about a transformed life.  In a culture that values tolerance of any view (allegedly!—we know this is not really so) and that reductionistically determines most every ethical issue in terms of a single value—freedom or right—does not want to tell people that their choices are wrong or that they can and should change.

In the early Church, however, teaching a new morality was part of mission.  Jesus’ Great Commission focussed on preaching the morality of the Kingdom of God.  He said to his disciples that they were to teach the nations everything that he had commanded them (Matthew 28.20).  Such a concept of a moral mission was much earlier seen as the role of Israel, to whom, one day, the nations would stream to learn righteousness (Is. 2.1-4).  Peace was not conceived as learning to live and let live, to allow various ethical beliefs to coexist.  Unity was not found in the tolerance of plurality but in teaching the One God’s commandments.  Turning to God was not merely a belief system but also a new righteousness according to God’s Law.  Israel’s failure at the time of the early Church was a general failure to live up to the Law of God that it acknowledged—the problem was not a work’s righteousness but a sinfulness despite acknowledging the Law.  Non-Jews, who did not know God’s Law, needed to be taught to live righteously.

So it is not at all surprising to learn that Paul’s missionary proclamation of the Good News was followed by teaching about God’s righteousness.  We see this approach to ministry through a study of Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians.  According to Acts, Paul was only in the city of Thessalonica for three Sabbaths (Acts 17.1-2).  Having left the city in haste and under hostility, Paul wrote two letters to the young Christians.  In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul admonishes them to abide by the teaching that he had given them in the short time that he was with them.  He begins with these words,

1 Thessalonians 4:1-2 Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.  2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.

We see, then, that Paul had incorporated moral instruction in his evangelistic ministry in the city.  Moreover, the following verses give us clues as to what the content of that teaching was:

·         Sexual ethics (4.2-8)
·         Community ethics (love, 4.9-10)
·         Social ethics (how to live as believers in the larger society, 4.11-12)

In a post-Christian culture in particular, the Church’s evangelistic mission needs to be followed by ethical teaching.  Elsewhere Paul states that Christians should not judge the non-Christian world for its ethics but should judge those who claim to be fellow-Christians.  He says,

1 Corinthians 5:12-13  For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  13 God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you.

Binding oneself to a Christian Church is not merely a matter of beliefs and community.  It is also a matter of following a Christian way of life, of pursuing a life of righteousness and walking in the ways of the Lord.  Mission does not end with proclamation of Good News but with transformed lives. 

To be sure, Paul found that he could, to some extent, find agreement with non-Christians.  One example is the issue of homosexuality, which Paul saw as a fundamental disregard of God’s intentions in creation.  This view, that there was natural sex between a man and a woman and unnatural sex between two persons of the same sex, could also be found in Stoicism (see Musonius Rufus and Epictetus).  Paul’s agreement with Stoicism extends to the view that what is natural is so precisely because God made it that way.  Thus his comments on homosexuality in Rom. 1.24-28 have a strongly creational focus that began in v. 18 with reference to unnatural worship (idolatry). A second example is in Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17.22-31).  In this speech, Paul is able to find connections to the beliefs of Athenians, to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in particular.  However, any agreement found in the overlap of general teaching is soon lost when he introduces particular teaching about Jesus Christ—specifically his resurrection from the dead.  The Church did not and will not find itself opposed to all non-Christian teaching and moral behaviour, but such overlap is limited.  Christian teaching about God’s righteousness begins from an entirely different basis, for it is a teaching of what Scripture says about living in a way that pleases God.  It is not a reasoning from general principles but a very particular teaching about how we should live.

Witnessing of the Gospel to a Postmodern Culture

Peter famously directed believers ‘Always [to] be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3.15).  He continues with a word about how to do this: ‘yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame’ (1 Peter 3.16).  The disciplinary and confrontational approach to sin within the Church noted above in Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 5 is not to be the approach to outsiders.  The difference is one of dealing with hypocrites (people claiming to be Christians and wanting to associate with the Christian community but living contrary to Christian teaching) versus dealing with people living consistently according to their non-Christian beliefs.  In the latter case, says Peter, gentle and reverential discourse is appropriate.  This is no matter of tolerance of non-Christian views in the postmodern sense—that is, an acceptance of all views as equally valid and acceptable, of seeing truth as constructed and therefore diverse and localized (different groups having their own ‘truth’).  It is, rather, a matter of appreciating that people behave certain ways because they have certain beliefs.  Christian mission entails an invitation (not coercion) to change one’s core beliefs and, consequently, one’s ethics.

When Christians attempt to gain control of society’s beliefs and behaviours, they operate from a Modernist understanding that expects to obtain uniformity through the use of power (such as laws passed by the legislature or interpreted by the courts).  Christians can witness to others through sharing their beliefs and living a different life, but this witnessing approach to evangelism is not a controlling approach.  The early Church teaches us how to live as a minority in society—through witness, not entitlement or coercive power.  This is not to say we should not exercise our vote for what we believe is right.  If democracy invites us to vote, then we should vote our consciences.  Yet the early Church was able to change society in radical ways through its witness and without any voting rights.  It was able to do so in the context of persecution.  The quotations from Peter given above continue in the next verse with his expectation that Christians will suffer as they put forward an explanation of their faith: ‘For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil’ (1 Peter 3.17).

One of the great ironies of contemporary, Western society is its schizophrenic affirmation of both a tolerance for diversity and an intolerance of Christianity.  This makes some sense, since Christians are rightly seen to affirm ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all’ (Ephesians 4.4-6).  This, from a postmodern perspective, amounts to a ‘totalizing narrative’ that excludes the conflicting diversity that it wants to celebrate.  Of course, by ejecting Christian faith from the public square, postmodernity also reduces its claim of diversity to absurdity.  Its attempt to affirm diversity simply dissolves into an ultra-Modernist, totalizing agenda, a political correctness that leads to persecution of Christians—as we already see.

How, then, do Christians explain the hope they have in such a context?  This great missional challenge to Western Christians has been answered in a variety of ways, to be sure.  Increasingly, old mainline denominations have sought to do so by adopting the agenda of the culture itself.  Jettisoning Biblical authority and the Church’s teaching through the centuries, they have taken on the causes of liberal culture.  They become communities that can advocate for and practice a script handed them by the culture.  Another approach has been for some conservative Christians, as has been said already, to try to regain the reins of power.  This explains a blanket support of any military action that the government takes, seeing the best way to bring about change as through the legislature, trying to get prayer back in schools when most students do not pray, and so forth.  This power approach to social transformation will not work, but it should not in any case.  What we can learn from the early Church is a better way to engage our postmodern culture: through witness.  We do need to learn to express the faith clearly and unreservedly in a hostile context, even in the context of persecution.  And we need to learn how to live in such a way—personally and communally—that our lives are a gentle and respectful challenge to the world.  Ultimately, of course, Christianity is not successful because of its growth in numbers and control of culture but because of the integrity of its witness.


Contemporary mission to the West has similarities to the early Christian mission.  For a long time, Christians used the term ‘mission’ to refer mostly to foreign missions.  That was because believers saw themselves as a ‘Christian’ society that sent missionaries to non-Christian lands.  Now, however, the West is post-Christian.  It finds itself in the situation of the early Church, with its mission to a pre-Christian world.  This essay has explored the mission to the West in broad strokes with some comparison to the early Church—so much more could be said.  It has done so by looking at proclamation of the Gospel in a hostile context, teaching righteousness in an amoral or immoral context, and witnessing the Gospel rather than using power and coercion.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Church 10: Pastoral Ministry, as Richard Baxter Saw It

The Church 10: Pastoral Duties, as Richard Baxter Saw It

In the previous post on the Church (number 9), I made public my musings during seminary graduation.  Whatever the point of the graduation addresses to the students year after year, the single message that rings in my head on such occasions is, ‘Be ministers of the Word of God.’  In that post, I mentioned the puritan minister, Richard Baxter.  In this post, I would like to mention a few more of Baxter’s points to those who take up pastoral ministry.

In 1656, Baxter produced reflections on pastoral ministry in a work entitled The Reformed Pastor.[1]  His discussion of pastoral duties comes in three parts that overlap.  They are:

(1)   Teaching every person, disciplining persons in the church, and uniting with others for the work of the Lord;
(2)   personal pastoral care;
(3)   specific duties of pastoral ministry.

What follows is a brief description of this advice on pastoral ministry in Baxter’s own words (apologies to readers who are not acquainted with English in the 17th century, but some help will be given).  Readers may wish to ask two questions while reading this: (1) What sort of Biblical basis is there for Baxter’s admonitions? and (2) How might his admonitions helpfully challenge our understanding of ‘church’ and pastoral ministry today?  As the following words are mostly from Baxter himself, my prose will be placed in square brackets.

1.      The Duties to Teach, Discipline, and Unite for the Work of the Lord

[In his dedication, Baxter lays three requests or duties before fellow ministers.]

  1. [Teaching: First, he states that the foremost duty laid upon ministers is to do the work of catechizing (instructing new believers in the faith).  This was the focus of the previous blog.]  
  2. [Disciplining:] My second request to the ministers in these kingdoms [of Britain], is, that they would at last, without any more delay, unanimously set themselves to the practice of those parts of Church discipline which are unquestionably necessary, and part of their work. It is a sad case, that good men should settle themselves so long in the constant neglect of so great a duty.
  3. [Association with Other Individuals, Churches, and Ministries:] My last request is, that all the faithful ministers of Christ would, without any more delay, unite and associate for the furtherance of each other in the work of the Lord, and the maintaining of unity and concord in his churches.

2.      Personal Pastoral Care

[In his Introductory Note, Baxter emphasises the importance of pastoral care.  He does so with teaching that focuses on Acts 20.28:]

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.

[The Relationship between the Size of a Parish or Congregation and Pastoral Ministry:] When we are commanded to take heed to all the flock, it is plainly implied, that flocks must ordinarily be no greater than we are capable of overseeing, or ‘taking heed to.’ God will not lay upon us natural impossibilities: he will not bind men to leap up to the moon, to touch the stars, or to number the sands of the sea. If the pastoral office consists in overseeing all the flock, then surely the number of souls under the care of each pastor must not be greater than he is able to take such heed to as is here required…. And that they had rather prayed the Lord of the harvest to send forth more laborers, even so many as were proportioned to the work, and not to have undertaken all themselves. I should scarcely commend the prudence or humility of that laborer, let his parts be ever so great, that would not only undertake to gather in all the harvest in this county himself, and that upon pain of death, yea, of damnation, but would also earnestly contend for this prerogative…. To this end it is necessary, that we should know every person that belongeth to our charge; for how can we take heed to them, if we do not know them? We must labor to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians. (Chapter 2, Section I, The Nature of This Oversight, 2).

3.      The Specific Duties of the Pastor

[Still with Acts 20.28 in mind, Baxter lists pastoral duties associated with ‘taking heed’ of each member of the ‘flock,’ the church:]

  1. We must labor, in a special manner, for the conversion of the unconverted.
  2. We must be ready to give advice to inquirers, who come to us with cases of conscience; especially the great case which the Jews put to Peter, and the gaoler [jailer] to Paul and Silas, ‘What must we do to be saved?’
  3. We must study [in older English, this word meant ‘work hard,’ not ‘do research’] to build up those who are already truly converted. In this respect our work is various, according to the various states of Christians.

(1)   There are many of our flock that are young and weak, who, though they are of long standing, are yet of small proficiency or strength….
(2)   Another class of converts that need our special help, are those who labor under some particular corruption, which keeps under their graces, and makes them a trouble to others, and a burden to themselves. Alas! there are too many such persons. Some are specially addicted to pride, and others to worldly-mindedness; some to sensual desires, and others to frowardness or other evil passions…. 
(3)   Another class who demand special help are declining Christians, that are either fallen into some scandalous sin, or else abate their zeal and diligence, and show that they have lost their former love….
(4)   The last class whom I shall here notice, as requiring our attention, are the strong; for they, also, have need of our assistance: partly to preserve the grace they have; partly to help them in making further progress; and partly to direct them in improving their strength for the service of Christ, and the assistance of their brethren; and, also, to encourage them to persevere, that they may receive the crown….
4. We must have a special eye upon families, to see that they are well ordered, and the duties of each relation performed….
(1) Get information how each family is ordered, that you may know how to proceed in your endeavors for their further good.
(2) Go occasionally among them, when they are likely to be most at leisure, and ask the master of the family whether he prays with them, and reads the Scripture, or what he doth?...
(4) See that in every family there are some useful moving books, beside the Bible.
(5) Direct them how to spend the Lord’s day; how to despatch [go about] their worldly business, so as to prevent encumbrances and distractions; and when they have been at church, how to spend the time in their families.
5.      We must be diligent in visiting the sick, and helping them to prepare either for a fruitful life, or a happy death….
6.      We must reprove and admonish those who live offensively or impenitently….
7.      The last part of our oversight, which I shall notice, consisteth in the exercise of Church discipline….  This consisteth, after the aforesaid private reproofs, in more public reproof, combined with exhortation to repentance, in prayer for the offender, in restoring the penitent, and in excluding and avoiding the impenitent.


Baxter’s description of pastoral duties, given in his own words, may still challenge our understanding of pastoral ministry.  At least, he challenges the image of pastoral ministry that I grew up with for pastoral ministry.  Many of us see the pastor as primarily the preacher in the pulpit.  We know that he (or she) visits hospitals and has office hours for those who wish to come to him for counseling or for some other reason.  Some of us know that he needs some business skill to run board meetings and possibly deal with budgets and buildings.

Yet Baxter’s discussion of the duties of the pastor places the emphasis elsewhere.  In his discussion of pastoral duty, he does not focus on sermon preparation and delivery (although he has much to say about this later on).  The efforts of the pastor are focused on preparing people, not sermons.  He sees the pastor as actively engaging his congregation during the week; he is out and about among them.  He goes to their houses and places of work.  He learns the conditions of each and every one of their souls and understands the family’s dynamics, and so he is able to teach them individually and speak to their spiritual needs.  He teaches, exhorts, and disciplines them.  His personal involvement in their lives requires him to have a congregation of manageable size, and success in ministry is measured in being able to practice the ministry of soul care, not in how large a Sunday morning group comes together for a one hour service each week.  He is also engaged in connecting with others in ministry so that the work of his church can connect to the larger work of the Church.  He is not building his own little kingdom but preparing his congregants to engage the mission of God in the world today.

Baxter’s description of the pastor brings to mind the village parson in rural England, and yet, for me, his description is far from irrelevant to the situation in our own day.  It is, just possibly, even more challenging today than it was in the 17th century.  He offers a vision of the pastor knocking on the doors of his parishioners, sitting at their kitchen tables, stopping by at work or the playground.  He offers a vision of the pastor who knows his congregants intimately and who can provide the teaching, soul care, and engagement in mission that each one needs as a follower of Jesus Christ.

[1] All quotes are from Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor.  Online (accessed 25 May, 2015):