Category Archives: Theology

Encountering Truth in a Post-Truth Society

As of last year, the word post-truth officially entered into the American vocabulary. Ergo the Washington Post recently ran a piece with the following headline: “Post-Truth” named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. The article then went on to say, “It’s official: Truth is dead. Facts are passe.”

So this, among other things, is what we’ve come to as society. Truth has become whatever we, as our individual selves, want to believe. It’s not just the politicians or the journalists, it’s us. That’s why there is all the influx of fake news stories about this or that we’ve passed along as truth in various social-media outlets. Most of the time, we don’t even care enough to even see if what we’re sharing is true or not. Why? Because the fake news story agrees with what we wish to be true. As my friend Sean Palmer remarked on Facebook, “We [don’t] see things as they are. We see things as we are. The lies are a symptom, the ego and false self are the disease!”

The question we must as is where do we go from here? Where might we find truth in order that we see life as God wills life to be?

Let’s begin with how our western society has understood truth and the birth of modernism in the 17th century, particularly with a couple of philosophers named René Descartes and Immanuel Kant. They led us to believe that the human mind and our ability to objectively reason was the foundational basis of what could be known and how we could resolve moral issues. Truth was reduced to whatever could be scientifically proven and the western world began to operate as though human reason could solve all of our problems. Though it wasn’t the intention of Descartes and Kant, this resulted in a grandiose view of humanity and what could be achieved through human ingenuity.

The human mind and objective reasoning might all sound good but then came the 20th century with depression and world wars, gas chambers and nuclear bombs, and humanitarian crises such as famine and the rise in urban blight. This is what the human mind, with its capacity to objectively reason, produced? It became rather obvious that science and human reason wasn’t solving every problem. Enter into the conversation two more philosophers named Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They helped us see that we’re not as objective in our reasoning as we wish since we all think from a location shaped by our experiences; and sometimes our motives are less than pure. Thus, modernism bequeathed postmodernism.

“Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Now I am far from well-read in the field of continental philosophy. However, from what I have read, it seems that postmodernism offered a good corrective to the arrogance of modernism which placed such high confidence in human reason. However, the downside of postmodernism is a trajectory that has led us into a post-truth reality where our only source of truth is our individual selves. Obviously, we have a problem when the only source of truth is ourselves. While we are all shaped by our own biases, experiences, and motives, is there any truth beyond ourselves? I believe so and if you’re a Christian, so then should you. Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I further believe the Bible is a truthful, and therefore trustworthy, witness of Jesus Christ, his gospel, and teaching.

We know this truth in the passing of tradition among the church. What I am speaking of is what Roberto S. Goizueta describes as “a truth that emerges from the interaction between two particular persons and that, therefore, transcends each of them” (Caminemos Con Jesús, p. 158). In our case the two particular people is ourselves and the local church which is always part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church whom Christ is present among. Among the local church is the tradition of what the first witnesses of the crucified and resurrected Jesus saw and began telling others who then told others and so forth. They we’re simply telling what they saw first-hand and subsequently experienced vicariously through their encounter of the gospel among the church. So the gospel story of Jesus and his teaching became the tradition passed on from one generation to the next.

One of the ways we encounter this tradition even as we share in it in order that we might know the truth is through the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist where we remember Jesus Christ. In the partaking of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we encounter the truth of what the world really is coming to be as God wills. We anticipate the future of history in the present (prolepsis) as we remember the past by sharing in the Lord’s Supper together as we sing hymns and pray as well as read scripture and hear the word of God proclaimed. Gathered together for this Eucharistic meal is where we then learn how to live into this future as a witness of the truth so that others, in a post-truth society, will encounter the truth of Jesus Christ.

Advent: The Dissonance of Christmas

In protest of the Vietnam War, John Lennon wrote a Christmas song called Happy Xmas (War Is Over). The background of chorus that goes “War is over now, if you want it, war is over, now!” Well, maybe so… or not!

Not every Christian may realize this but the advent of Jesus ushered in a new cosmic war, a Spiritual battle, that wages on. It has to do with the clash of kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world − the collision of powers between God and the rulers of this world.

This clash of powers begin right from the onset of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that the joy of Jesus’ birth gave way to bloodshed once King Herod learned that the baby being born was considered the ing of the Jews. Once his conspiracy to kill Jesus failed, Herod ordered the murder of ever boy age of two and under born in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

The slaughter of these babies is horrible but it’s also the consequence of God’s kingdom colliding with the kingdoms of this world and it doesn’t end there. Eventually the Jewish and Gentile rulers of this world conspire together, crucifying Jesus. But thankfully, God raised Jesus from death and the resurrection of Jesus is God’s assurance that the rulers of this world have lost.

…to proclaim that Jesus is King is to renounce the claims of sovereignty the rulers of this world make, whether these claims come in the form of a monarchy, oligarchy, or even a democracy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the rules of this world will surrender their claims of sovereignty so easily. We only need to read the book of Revelation to understand how this cosmic war wages on and is waged against Jesus and his church until God’s victorious reign is fully realized in the second-coming of Christ.

So where does that leave us who proclaim Jesus as King? We sing “Hark the herald angels sing ‘Glory to the newborn King!  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…’” but our story reminds us that leaning into this reality places us against the kingdoms of this world. For to proclaim that Jesus is King is to renounce the claims of sovereignty the rulers of this world make, whether these claims come in the form of a monarchy, oligarchy, or even a democracy.

This isn’t a denial of the role which governments serve as God’s agents for maintaining law and order in a fallen world (cf. Rom 13:4). However, the war is over and in King Jesus, God has won the victory. As believers, who profess our allegiance to King Jesus, we bear witness to this victory. We declare that the kingdom of God is here!

And at the very least, singing “Glory to the newborn King!” should evoke some sense of dissonance with the world and even our own country. That won’t always be easy but the good news is that we’re on the winning side.

Proleptic Vision: Christians, America, and the Upcoming Presidential Election

How should Christians, people who profess to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, live? In one sense that seems like a simple question to answer: Christians must become like Jesus Christ. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). However, this opens other important questions such as how such life formation shapes the way we act towards the poor, the way we live in marriage, the way we love our enemies, and so on.

Though it has not always been the cast, most of these other questions are a no-brainer. Of course, the life Jesus lived should shape the way we act as husbands or wives, the way we love our enemies (even if we don’t agree on what all that entails). Yet there is one aspect in which Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of influence these days and that is how Christians relate to earthly nations in light of history.

The fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is a well known passage of scripture for its proclamation of the gospel, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation this gospel offers to those who believe. Consider though, the historical implications of the gospel. Because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul says in vv. 20-24:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

What a huge historical claim this passage makes about the future and end or goal (telos) of history. As Jürgen Moltmann notes, the future and hope is already present to Christians in Christ (Theology of Hope, p. 161). This makes history proleptic whereby the future of history is already known to those who believe, giving the church a proleptic vision. All dominion, authority, and power is and will surrender to the reign of Jesus, who will then hand over the kingdom to God the father.

…Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed.

Right now, America is engaged in a vitriolic and contentious political campaign that will culminate in the election of a new President of the United States. In varying degrees, Christians in America are for the most part also engaged in this political campaign. Some Christians would even suggest, as one article does, that the future of America is at stake with this election. Should Christians have such a concern? Remember what the passage above from 1 Corinthians already implies for believers: the future of America and every other earthly nation is already known. Whatever claims of sovereignty America and other earthly nations make, Jesus Christ has already defeated such sovereignty which will surrender no later then when the end (telos) of history dawns.

This must change the way Christians live historically in relation to the nations and that includes America. Sine Jesus Christ is already victorious over all dominion and authority, including America and every other earthly nation, then the work of Christians in every local church is the proclamation of this victory (cf. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 147). Just as I suggest that Christians should read the Bible through the hermeneutical lenses of christology and eschatology, the Christian life and ministry must be christologically-centered and eschatologically-oriented. The doctrines of christology and eschatology should shape the proleptic vision of the church, changing the way Christians should relate to all earthly nations and history. That is, Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed. The Christian witness then involves letting the world know of this victory. All earthly nations, including America, must know that they are neither eternal nor sovereign because God has already established his eternal kingdom through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Lest I be misunderstood or even falsely accused, I do not hate America. Problems notwithstanding, America has and will most likely continue to be a good nation to live among. So please, if you’ve read this far, do not think of me as an anti-American hater, because I’m not. I just believe that Jesus is Lord and that my allegiance is therefore due to Jesus and his kingdom.

So how should Christians in America relate to earthly nations in light of history, particularly as it pertains to the upcoming election? As November 8th approaches, it does seem that Christians have good reason for concern (though neither fear nor anxiety). Whoever is elected as the next President of the United States or whoever becomes a Mayor among any number of American cities does matter. Those holding such such offices should be people who will serve by seeking the relative good of all people. However, Christians must not be misled into thinking that the future of America is really what matters. What matters is that Jesus Christ is the crucified and resurrected Lord! What a failure it is for Christians to become so entangled in the business of who wins an election that the gospel takes a back seat, resulting in a diminished and compromised Christian witness.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, let them see and hear!

A Christian Hermeneutic: Until Christ Is Formed In You

Anyone can pick up a Bible, read it and quote it. But that doesn’t mean they’ll read it right and begin living the life the Bible points to, revealed to us by Jesus. In fact, remember when Jesus was led into the wilderness and tested by the devil? Well, the devil even quoted scripture and I’m quite sure his use of scripture was not what God had in mind.

I’ve been busy finishing a thesis proposal for my Doctor of Ministry degree in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary. My interest and the focus of my research is on missional hermeneutics and how a church reads the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God. It’s an important issue as churches navigate new challenges brought on by rapid changes in their local communities. It’s also an important issue because not every Christian/church reads the Bible well. Reading the Bible to simply protect the status quo of tradition in your church, to legitimize the American way of life, to promote the  “name it, claim it” prosperity gospel, and so on. Bad reading!

How we read our Bible matters also as we are faced with new moral and ethical challenges. With great advances in technology, new discoveries in science, the availability of a plethora of information at the click of a mouse, and the onset of globalization, we have reason to inquire about what is right and wrong or how we should act and respond to this or that issue. Racism, homosexuality, gun violence and terrorism, abortion, marriage and divorce, materialism and charity… to name a few of the issues.

Some of the issues may seem to have an easy answer where it seems clear as to what the will of God is and therefore how Christians should believe and act. For some Christians it is but for others it’s not as clear cut. In fact, there are Christians, who love Jesus and desire to follow him as much as you, who have come to some different conclusions than you. Whose right and whose wrong isn’t the point. What matters is that we recognize that facing the difficult challenges and finding answers to the questions they raise, if that’s possible since that is not always the case, is more than just a matter of asking what does the Bible say?

I don’t want to be misunderstood though. Asking what the Bible says is a good question but it is always a matter of interpretation and our interpretation is always based on a hermeneutic. Everyone has a hermeneutic whether they know it or not, the real question is whether it is a good hermeneutic or a bad hermeneutic. One person’s hermeneutic might be happiness and so long as it makes a person happy or brings them joy, then nothings wrong. Another person’s hermeneutic might be the virtue of “do no harm” and so an action permissible as long as it doesn’t result in injury to anyone else.

For Christians and churches, our hermeneutic is anchored in Jesus Christ. In a blog post, there is only say so much that one can say which may (hopefully) raise more questions than it answers and that is my hope here. But let me try explaining what I mean by Jesus Christ as our hermeneutic by quoting one passage of scripture from the Apostle Paul:

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Gal 4:19)

This is one of the classic passages when talking about spiritual formation and it seems clear that Paul ministry sought to form the church in the way of Jesus Christ. How Jesus lived, becoming a crucified servant, and the purpose for which he lived, the kingdom of God, must become our way and purpose for how we live. This is the hermeneutic we must read the Bible through, which I believe is shaped by the dual lenses of christology (the life Jesus lived) and eschatology (the goal for which Jesus lived).

To describe this Christian hermeneutic another way, this hermeneutic is christologically-centered and eschatologically oriented. Reading the Bible through this hermeneutical lens is not likely to make the challenging issues and questions faced by churches any easier in addressing. However, it provides a beginning point that for determine right and wrong not based on happiness or lacking any injury but on whether our actions are Christ likeness in perspective and direction.

And if the church, the Christian life, isn’t Christ likeness… Well, you know!

The Gospel According To Us

“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.” This famous quote is often attributed to the twelfth century Catholic Friar, St. Francis of Assisi, though as far as we know he never actually made such a statement. Christians often share this quote as a reminder that the life of Christians should be a proclamation of the gospel itself and that the gospel proclaimed in spoken word is insufficient. Of course, this quote attributed to St. Francis has also come under criticism in an attempt preserve the necessity of preaching the gospel in words. Ed Stetzer goes so far as to say that “the quote is not biblical.”

Is it really unbiblical to suggest that we should preach the gospel and only use words as necessary? Stetzer thinks so and makes his case by appealing to the Apostle Paul, particularly what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:

The Apostle Paul summarized the gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ… The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.

The problem with this is that while it’s fair to describe what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 about the gospel as a summary, we must remember that it’s just a summary. As with any summary, there is much more detail to what the gospel of Jesus Christ is and that is found in the larger biblical narrative which is why Paul says that the death of Christ is “according to the Scriptures” (v. 4). Beyond the mere facts of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, there is a kingdom with a particular end (telos) that cannot be separated from the gospel. Even more so, behind the historical facts of the gospel is the actually life which Jesus lived and called us to follow him in living too. We read of this life in the four canonical Gospels, the Gospel According to Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. As Scot McKnight points out, these four books are called “Gospels” because they each are witnesses to the storied life that Jesus lived (The King Jesus Gospel, pp. 81-82). That’s important because Jesus himself proclaimed the gospel in both word and deed. Put another way, Jesus both demonstrated and declared the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God.

Unequivocally then, the gospel is preached in both word and deed, and therefore something which is both seen and heard. So rather than making a dichotomy between preaching the gospel in word and deed, turning this into an either/or issue, let’s treat preaching the gospel in word and deed as a both/and issue. If someone thinks the gospel only needs to be lived and never proclaimed in word, then Ed Stetzer has a valid reason for concern and I join with him in voicing such concern. However, I suspect that some Christians regard the gospel demonstrated as less important that the gospel declared. I don’t know of a Christian who would admit such devaluing of the demonstrated gospel but when we look at what is done, there are reasons for such suspicions.

“Jesus both demonstrated and declared the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God.”

Last week after various evangelical leaders met with Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, James Dobson of Focus on the Family declared that Trump had accepted Jesus Christ and therefore was now a Christian. Regardless of Trump’s political views, there is good reason for raising questions about Trump’s alleged conversion when months ago Trump said that he has never even asked God for forgiveness and did not have any need of repentance. However, as one article recently said, this is not about Trump:

But I think these things are less the failure of Trump’s Christian infancy as much as they are a microcosm of the underlying problem with much of America’s evangelical movement — we actually have no idea what it means to be Christian. We lack a meaningful understanding of faith and belief.

That’s right, the issue is really a problem for Christians.

However, I believe such confusion about what it means to be a Christian flows from a misunderstanding of the gospel itself. If we think that demonstrating the gospel is somehow less important than declaring the gospel with the spoken word then it’s easy to define a Christian based on what they say, such as claiming to have accepted Jesus Christ. Identifying a Christian has less or even little to do with the transformed living that comes from the Spirit at work as we repent and receive our baptism into Christ.

While we all, as Christians, including myself, struggle in someway to live congruently with the faith we profess, our faith in Jesus is intended to become an embodied life as much as it is a confession. Yet one only needs to open up the status feed on social-media to see that what Christians often believe in, value, and advocate for is far removed from Jesus… Like when a woman’s right to choice or a person’s right to bear arms eclipses all consideration of the thousands of unborn children or the numerous civilians who are being slaughtered by gun violence across America… Like when fear of terrorism, Muslim refugees, and undocumented immigrants justifies an expedient exemption from love our neighbors as ourselves and even loving our enemies… Like when the need to either be politically correct or politically offensive allows the demonization of either the police or the #BlackLivesMatter movement, depending on what side one falls on, or despise the LBGTQ community…. Like when sounds more like an echo chamber of Bill Maher or Bill O’Reilly than Jesus and the Bible that bears witness to Jesus. And like I said, one only needs to turn to social-media to see what I’m getting at.

“…our faith in Jesus is intended to become an embodied life as much as it is a confession.”

The only way forward begins with a better understanding of the gospel, which includes understanding the gospel as an embodied way of life rooted in the mission of God. I’ve just finished reading Michael J. Gorman’s book Becoming The Gospel which summarizes this saying:

From Paul’s perspective the gospel itself is a powerful word of transformation, its content being given voice not merely in words but also, and inseparably, in actions. This does not eliminate the need for, or the importance of, words, but it does imply that the words have meaning and power only in action. God did something in Christ; Christ did something in becoming human and giving himself for us; the Spirit does something to and through the people who believe the good news of this divine activity.

     Furthermore, the content of the gospel Paul preaches is so thoroughly rooted both in the peculiar Christological shape of this divine activity — the life and teaching, and especially the death and resurrection, of Jesus — and in the Scriptures of Israel, with their promises of the Spirit and of shalom, that people who believe such good news are ineluctably drawn into its strange Christ-shaped and Scripture-shaped reality. So if the gospel has to do with a faithful God, a Suffering Servant who inaugurates God’s shalom, and a prophetically promised indwelling Spirit, then the individuals and communities who believe in that good news will be shaped in their minds and bodies, their thinking and their living, into Godlike, Christlike, Spirit-enabled people who in some real, if imperfect, way instantiate the message they believe (p. 298).

This connection between the gospel as historical reality and embodied life is what seems lacking, in varying degrees, among many Christians and local churches.

I’ve talked with more than a few churches over my years as a minister. Most are experiencing some decline and seeking renewal, desiring both spiritual and numerical growth. That’s good but we must understand that renewal is the work of God which sprouts from the gospel as it is believed in word and embodied in deed. So I would like to suggest that we must give as much, if not more, attention to demonstrating the gospel in the way we live as we give to declaring the gospel with words — without drawing a sharp distinction between word and deed since what we believe, value, and advocate for with spoken words reflects and impacts how we live.

How we demonstrate the gospel matters more than ever if we are to have any credible gospel witness. In fact, in our post-Christendom society where our Christian voice is increasingly marginalized, how we demonstrate the gospel becomes a currency of sorts for gaining a hearing. Without demonstrating the gospel, we lose the audience of those who may be open to the declared gospel. Stated in the positive, demonstrating the gospel as our embodied way of life gives us the credibility for declaring the gospel and “preaching the word” then becomes an explanation of what is seen rather than just an argumentation for what we profess. After all, the only gospel of Jesus Christ others are going to see and hear is, as the picture above suggest, the gospel according to us… the gospel we embody in word and deed. So to invoke the alleged wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi again, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”

Visions, Churches, and Conversion

When it comes to the book of Acts, a lot of attention has been given to the so-called conversion stories. There are good reasons for this, as these conversion stories not only give us an account of the gospel being preached to unbelievers but also how people responded to the gospel message. One of those conversion stories tells of the first Gentile conversion to Christ when a centurion soldier named Cornelius and his household were baptized. But there’s another “conversion story” (if you will) within this story that seems overlooked, the conversion of the Apostle Peter told in Acts 10:9-23.

Conversion might seem an odd way of describing what happens to Peter on the roof but conversion is repentance, a change involving a person’s entire self to the will of God. What happens to Peter is a conversion towards the impartiality of God (Witherup, Conversion In The New Testament, 69) and it demands our attention, especially if we’re interested being led by the Spirit as I have heard different churches express.

When Heaven Opens…

When Peter went up on to the roof to pray, he was a God-fearing follower of Jesus. His devotion to God as a follower of Jesus has already led to him proclaiming Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36) and it has resulted in even being arrested (Acts 4:3). So there isn’t any question about the sincerity of Peter’s faith. Peter is a God-fearing follower of Jesus but he’s still lacks some understanding he will need to repent of in order to believe in the full gospel and live fully as a participant in the mission of God.

The repentance Peter is in need of has to do with what he regards as unclean. In a dream of sorts, Peter receives a vision of all different kinds of four-footed animals telling him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter’s response is an immediate and emphatic rejection of such a suggestion. And who can blame Peter. Like Jesus and the other apostles, Peter knew the scriptures  and he knew that the Law clearly forbids eating anything unclean (Lev 11:47). But the voice in the dream tells him to stop calling unclean what God has made clean (Acts 10:13) and Peter will later say that this voice was God teaching him that he should not speak of anyone or anything as unclean (Acts 10:28). Consequently, despite his conviction about what he thought was the biblical teaching regarding clean and unclean, Peter had to recognize that he was wrong in his belief on this issue and repent.

Is there a lesson for churches today? I believe so. The churches I am familiar with have a very high view of scripture and are devout God-fearing followers of Jesus. Like Peter, we know that we must “obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). But like Peter, could we ever be wrong about what we believe is God’s will according to scripture? I certainly hope so because it takes an abundance of hubris to think otherwise. Although everyone of us believes we are right in the different views we hold, we must open ourselves to the possibility that God may be trying to show us we are in fact wrong. That requires humility, which most of the churches I encounter seem to possess. This openness is important because without it, we risk the danger of one day become so dogmatic and self-righteous that we end up looking more like the religious authorities who opposed Jesus and the apostles.

Letting Go…

The conversion of Peter in this story is not a result of a different Bible teaching, a point that should not go unnoticed. It is a vision that initially challenges Peter’s understanding of scripture which has taught him to reject what is unclean and that is only the beginning point. So how is it that Peter will regard what he has previously believed, with good biblical reasoning, and open himself new understanding of God’s will? While Peter is aided by the voice of the Spirit, it is the unfolding events that help him make sense of the vision and conclude that the vision is the revealing of God’s will. In fact, he unfolding events to come will stretch Peter’s understanding of what it means to be a member of the people of God (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 187).

The openness of Peter is a mindset that churches must embrace if they are to participate in the mission of God. It is an openness that’s willing to say that the way we have understood scripture on any particular issue is wrong and requires us to change (repentance). But it is also requires a willingness to relinquish control and I’m talking about the control that keeps everything safe, comfortable and within our “dogma” box. Of course, we can become dogmatic and double-down with our biblical proof-texts, insisting that the scripture says… But imagine if Peter would have taken that approach. Sometimes our understanding of scripture is wrong and if we’re open to seeing how God is at work in the unfolding events rather than defining how God must work with our predetermined conclusions about the teaching of scripture, we might see our need for conversion as did Peter.

Peter doesn’t turn to scripture but allows his experience in the events that unfold to redefine for him the boundaries of God’s people and in whom God is at work. I’m not suggesting that scripture is without authority or has a diminished importance but we must learn to discern what God might be saying though events, experiences, and voices other than scripture. For example, I grew up believing that only those who understood scripture exactly as I did were true Christians but this sort of sectarianism began to crumble when I began to take notice of the Spirit dwelling among other believers in Jesus, evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. I realized that God is not partial in offering his grace to only those who think they understand all the teachings of scripture correctly. The same might also apply to the way we view women serving in ministry. Regardless of what we think certain passages teach regarding women serving in ministry, when we see how God has gifted some women as incredible teachers and leaders might it suggest that maybe our understanding of certain biblical passages is wrong?

A Final Thought…

Peter underwent a conversion because he was open enough to know he could be wrong and needed to reconsider what he believed about what God is up to. We know the results, the gospel expanded to the Gentiles and Christianity began to differentiate itself as an entirely new movement rather than just another Jewish sect. Right now any local churches find themselves at a pivotal point, facing decline and wondering where God is leading them next. The real question is whether or not we are open enough to be surprised as to where God is leading or will we simply insist on not eating anything unclean?

Church Renewal: Becoming The Gospel

For churches seeking a minister, a common theme seems to be the question of how to evangelize and grow as a church. Some churches realize this question is bigger than any simple answer while others seem as though the church just needs a minister who is good at starting new programs. This desire is certainly laudable but I would like to suggest that this is placing the cart before the horse. I’m not against programs, evangelism, and other ministries but any such movement and the way a church organizes itself for that movement must flow from the way a it follows Jesus and embodies the gospel among the community.

I’m reading Michael J. Gorman’s book Becoming The Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, since it relates to my Doctor of Ministry studies. As the title suggests, Gorman argues that the churches Paul ministered among were not called just to believe the gospel but also become the gospel. This is what I mean when speaking of the way a church must follow Jesus and embody the gospel. Gorman describes this becoming the gospel as “…the church is a living exegesis of the gospel of God” (p. 43). That is, the local church serves as a faithful interpretation of the gospel, which is how the disciples participate in the mission of God.

[Let me pause here and point out too that faithful interpretation of the gospel does not mean a reproduction of first century, fifth century, sixteenth century, or even twentieth century ecclesial forms, as the interpretation must always speak contextually in the social-anguage of the local community but that is really another issue. I just want to be clear that we are not talking about restoring any past easier segment of the church, this is about participating in God’s mission of restoring life by reconciling people to be a new creation in Christ. Now back to the point.]

For Gorman, by becoming the gospel, a church becomes a proclamation of the gospel in word and deed. This must happen both in an inward (“centripetal”) and outward (“centrifugal”) direction. However, the deed of the gospel must always proceed the word of the gospel. Those worried about whether this diminishes the evangelistic need of teaching the gospel to those who do not belong to Christ need not worry. Such evangelism will happen naturally as the church becomes the gospel in deed.

Driving this point even further, Gorman says, “As they [local churches] become the gospel, they will have opportunities to speak the gospel” (p. 45). What he is getting at is the natural response of a church speaking the gospel by virtue of being what a church is always called to be, an embodiment of the gospel or, to use his words again, a living exegesis of the gospel. He illustrates this point by referring to a barking dog, which never needs someone to instruct it to bark… Dogs know naturally when to bark and how to bark so as to alert of a danger, warn a possible intruder, etc… Ergo, when churches become the gospel, they will naturally know how and when to speak the gospel.

So why is this so important? Beyond the need for local churches to become living embodiments of the gospel (which is immensely important), this also has something to say about not putting the cart before the horse. Local churches want to engage their community, evangelizing and ministering to people outside the body of Christ, which is a good thing. But instead of focusing on that per se, which is the cart, focus on the horse. That is, the focus should be on the  formation of disciples who learn how to follow Jesus and embody the gospel amongst themselves and within their local community. So instead of asking how to develop a new evangelistic program, a church might ask:

  • What does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus and what is involved?
  • What changes (repentance) are necessary in order for a church to continue following Jesus?
  • What particular practices are vital for embodying the gospel among various gatherings, different neighborhoods, and even in the home?
  • What means of creative expression might help make this living gospel contextually intelligible among the local community?

I’m thinking out loud a bit with these question but I believe that by asking them and listening for how the Spirit of God speaks in the conversation, churches will begin seeing the way forward. When that happens, the beginning of renewal among local churches is at hand.