Five Marks of Effective Christian Leadership
Advice to those considering Christian Ministry
[A talk given by the Very Rev. Dr. Peter C. Moore to students at Trinity School for Ministry when he was their Dean/President. Sometime around 2000.]
Why is it that some of the most insightful statements about the Christian ministry were written to the one church in the New Testament that was filled with renegade rogues bent on twisting the Christian faith to justify their libertine lifestyles? The Corinthian letters of Paul are filled with amazing insights into what constitutes authentic ministry. And this makes no sense until you remember that the light often shines brightest against the darkest background.
Corinth was the Las Vegas of biblical times. The church that the Apostle Paul founded there within a couple of decades of the Resurrection was constantly in conflict with him. It was what we would today call a “worldly” church. Paul, in fact, in the first few verses of chapter 3 of his First Letter to the Corinthians calls them “worldly” three times. Some translations use the phrase “men of the flesh” but the meaning is the same. These Christians had a carnal mindset. They were not spiritual. They were trying to bend what the Apostle had taught them to suit their unchristian behavior.
In v.1 of chapter three, Paul says that they have an infantile approach to spirituality: “”But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ.”
In v.2 he says that they have an undeveloped taste for teaching: “I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”
And in verses 3 and 4 he says that they have an immature idea of heroes: “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely men?”
By calling them “fleshly” Paul is not implying that they were not ascetic enough, not pure enough, not otherworldly enough, not detached from the things of ordinary life enough. No, “fleshly”, “worldly” are terms that meant childish, undeveloped, immature. These Christians were simply not being led by the Spirit into a thoughtful, wise, consistent, faithful life. They were still being governed by the spirit of this age, the spirit of this world. They were essentially Christian infants, stunted in their growth, and incapable of thinking and acting as grown up believers.
We could spend a lot of time thinking about the problems in the Corinthian Church of the First Century. It’s a fascinating tale. But the point to note is that despite their spiritual enthusiasm, their giftedness, and their privileged position, they were stuck at square one. They’d not passed Boardwalk. They’d not collected $200. They’d barely begun the game.
Which is surprising when you consider that Paul, Apollos, Peter, and goodness knows who else included Corinth on their itineraries. No first century preacher, teacher, or philospher missed the chance to go to Corinth. After all, Corinth was one of the three or four great cities of the ancient world. Athens, home of Plato, Socrates, and the Olympics was a mere footnote to Corinth. Athens to Corinth was what Cambridge is to Boston, New Haven to New York, and Princeton to Philadelphia. Athens was an intellectual center -- very erudite and very distinguished. But the real action, the busy commercial life, the bustling urban hubbub was a few miles away down the coast in Corinth.
The relevance of Paul’s letters to this church should be obvious to any observer of our modern church scene. We experience today’s church as similarly immature. Someone said of American Christianity that it is 3,000 miles wide, and 1 inch deep! We have buildings, and budgets, and church parking lots that cost as much to pave as it takes to run whole dioceses in the developing world.
Spirituality for most people in the pews is an arrow prayer when caught in trouble, a vague sense of something beyond themselves available when crises come, and a transcendent foundation for values and morals. A disciplined prayer life? A spiritual counselor? A hunger to build virtues into their lives? A deep commitment to the health and outreach of the local parish? We are dealing with profound biblical ignorance, indifference to the most basic theological A, B, C’s of the faith, the loss of a Christian mind, and a world view made up of an amalgam of Easter, Western, and secular components. Ben Franklin with his deistic pragmatism had more spirituality than many who attend church today.
So, we too have an infantile approach to spirituality and an undeveloped taste for teaching. What about an immature idea of heroes?
Tell me the church that wouldn’t use a recently converted athlete or celebrity on the speaker circuit – because he would draw a crowd. Tell me the church that wouldn’t prefer a smooth, really nice guy as rector to someone who has spent his or her life plumbing the depths of the Christian tradition. Count the dioceses on one hand that wouldn’t prefer a bishop who has made the headlines questioning every basic doctrine of the Faith, or who has made a career out of speaking out of both sides of his mouth trying to please this constituency or that, rather than one who takes his stand on the Bible.
Pope John Paul is widely admired everywhere except within the trendy circles of his own Church in America where his hard line towards doctrine is decried and his efforts to bring errant members in line with orthodox Catholic practice is lambasted.
And outside the church the situation is the same. Mother Theresa relieved the suffering of millions. But when she challenged Congress to stop the killing of babies and give the unwanted children to her, they squirmed and fidgeted and couldn’t wait for her to leave.
Chuck Colson has mobilized thousands of volunteers to make the lives of prisoners around the world less miserable, and has urged prison reform. But he was often referred to in the media as “that born-again neo-conservative who worked in the Nixon White House during Watergate.”
Real heroes do courageous things and take hard stands. But neither the church nor the world has much to do with them. They are an embarrassment. And so we elect church leaders who want the church to bless sodomy. Does that tell you something?
So, what is God’s solution? What is God’s solution to a church that is really messed up? To a church where…
Sexual taboos were being broken while people cheered the newfound freedom this expressed. Out with rigid laws, in with authenticity.
Christians were engaged in worship wars – especially over the Holy Communion.
Christians were perpetuating class distinctions, some flaunting their wealth and humiliating the poorer members.
Christians were partying at pagan festivities, scandalizing fellow believers.
Christians were denying such basic tenets of the Faith as the Resurrection.
So, what is God’s solution? It’s leaders who lead. Leaders who lead by what they say and what they do.
This is why in a passage where Paul rakes these believers over the coals for their immaturity, he also pleads with them – and does so, by the way, as a “brother.” Paul calls these errant Christians “brothers”, putting himself on the same plane as they. He pleads with them to look for leaders who are mature, who are godly.
1. The first thing he does is remind them that godly leaders produce followers. V.5 “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed.”
Paul’s opponents in Corinth were parasites – as all false leaders invariably are. These false leaders came, created a stir, and raised questions about this and that. But they produced no new believers!
The test of any Christian leader’s ministry is simply this: do they produce followers?
We are far too content to “minister” but leave the tough work of bringing seekers and skeptics into the Kingdom of God to others. Someday the Lord will ask of us: “I made you fishers of men. Did you catch any fish?” He won’t be pleased if we answer: “Well, Lord, I didn’t actually catch any; but I sure influenced a lot of them.”
We must ask ourselves: am I in the business of disciple-making? Will I do the work of an evangelist? An immature church needs leaders who will bring other people to faith.
It was rather exciting to read on the front page of the New York Times Book Review the story of an English Benedictine monk named Joseph Warrilow, who almost unbeknownst to himself brought thoroughgoing pagan but well-known author and satirist Tony Hendra (author: This is Spinal Tap) to faith in God. If the Times can celebrate the conversion of a hedonist skeptic, then let’s find ways of celebrating conversions in our own parishes.
As Paul wrote to Timothy: “As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
2. The second thing Paul does is remind them that godly leaders take time to raise up other leaders. Not just disciples, but fellow leaders. Paul stresses the time this takes.
He uses an agricultural metaphor. He thinks of his converts in Corinth as plants that grow from seed to seedling to full-blown plant. “You are God’s field.” And “so neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (v.9,7)
Paul knew that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that gardens don’t emerge with one burst of Miracle Grow.
An American tourist was looking at an impeccable lawn in front of a great house in England. Reflecting on his paltry efforts to establish a decent lawn at his suburban home in the Midwest, the tourist was amazed at this lawn, so smooth as a bowling green, so perfectly manicured, without a dandelion or a weed anywhere. He spotted the gardener and went up to him: “Gee, how do you get a lawn to look like this?” “Well,” said the gardener, “you cut it, and feed it, and water it, and then do it all over again – for 400 years!
Leaders take time with people. They hang in there through thick and thin. They write them notes and letters. They take walks with them in the woods. They meet them at McDonalds for breakfast. They pass them books to read.
I recall that our first President, Bishop Stanway, long before he came to the United States to help found this seminary, told me sometime after he had met me that he had written my name on his daily prayer list. I was astounded. This Australian Bishop from Africa, who had planted a new church every week year after year, and who I had only just met, would put my name on his prayer list. Later I learned that there were many others on his trips through the United States with whom he did exactly the same thing. Bishop Stanway took time with people he thought might become leaders.
And here was one difference between George Whitefield and John Wesley. Whitefield was an amazing orator, a dynamic preacher, and a towering figure in the Great Awakening. But it was Wesley’s vision to form societies where new believers could be nurtured into future leaders that enabled Wesley’s work to endure, while Whitefield’s was soon dissipated.
“We were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children” wrote Paul to the Thessalonians. “We were ready to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves…for…like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God…” I Thess. 2:7-12
Brothers, sisters, when others look back on your ministry years from now. will they say: “You were a father to me. You raised me up in Christ. You were a mother to me. You fed me from infancy until I knew how to feed myself.” Churches in disarray need godly leaders who will take time to raise up other leaders like them.
3. The third thing Paul does is remind them that godly leaders share leadership.
Corinth attracted speakers from all over: philosophers, teachers, pundits. Corinthians appear to have taken a measure of pride in sponsoring some of these eloquent public speakers. Perhaps that’s the reason why Paul refused to accept any payment from them, but worked to support his ministry that was offered gratis.
But the nouveau riche culture of Corinth encouraged the creation of prima donnas. Who could speak the best? Who could gather the largest crowd? Who could make the biggest impact?
And Paul knew how to stand up there with the best of them and hold his own. He had proved that at the Areopogas in Athens. With his gifts as a speaker he might have been tempted to exalt himself at the expense of others. But he didn’t.
I find this to be a perennial problem for those who do a lot of speaking in front of crowds or congregations. There was a cartoon of a young man sitting across the desk from his rector, probing him for guidance about a possible vocation to the ministry. The caption read: “Do you think I might have a call to the ministry, I can’t stand to hear anyone else preach.”
Take Apollos. He was very eloquent; but Priscilla and Aquilla, seasoned Christians, had to take him aside and explain the way of Christ more fully to him. Whether this had happened by the time Paul wrote this letter we don’t know. Most likely yes. But note Paul’s charity towards his eloquent brother.
He puts himself on the same level as Apollos. He doesn’t pull rank, although he was an apostle and Apollos wasn’t. Here, both are “servants.” Each has a special role, and “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.”
You can tell a lot about a leader from the way he or she treats other leaders. Does he/she build them up? See their strengths? Affirm their gifts? Draw attention to their successes? Admire their effectiveness? True leaders do. They are not threatened or demeaned by others who lead.
General George Patton was an amazing field commander. Few men knew how to command the loyalty of their troops. But he was a prima donna. He was jealous of his peers. Patton criticized his fellow generals. He hogged the limelight. He didn’t know how to be a team player. Patton was such an embarrassment, that Eisenhower – who was a personal friend -- nearly stripped him of his rank.
Friends, remember the Jethro principle. “Moses, you will never lead this people all by yourself. Raise up 70 others, (Num. 11:16) and let them share with you in hearing cases and meeting out justice.”
Some of us, I fear, are like the grand father who was telling his little grandson all about his exploits in the war. He was a little surprised when the small boy said: “But granddaddy, couldn’t you have gotten anybody else to help you?”
4. The fourth thing Paul does is remind them that godly leaders are humble.
If the Corinthians are children, “mere human beings,” as Paul calls them, then Paul and Apollos are “mere servants.” (v. 5)
There is no false humility here. Paul will not sound like Dickens’ Uriah Heap, “I am just a humble man, a very humble man.” Paul does not say that he and his fellow workers are nothing, nobodies. They are “servants” and the word is diakonoi, deacons. In that culture servants could be very significant people in the household. But by the same token diakonoi could be mere waiters – people who do the bidding of their Master. The key was that they were not the boss. They were under authority.
Of course, Paul means that he and Apollos were first of all servants of Christ – not of the Corinthians. Paul would be nobody’s chaplain. He refused to be sponsored by the Corinthians. He could not be bought.
It saddens me to think of how many ministries have been ruined because they were bought. This may be one of your greatest areas of temptation in the years to come as future clergy, especially as you have other mouths to feed, to clothe, to educate, and so on.
But while Paul could not be bought, and while he was first of all a servant of Christ, he was still humble: “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
The word humility comes from the Latin word “humus”, meaning “earth.” And earth is to be trod upon. You will know whether you have humility by your reaction to the first parishioner who treats you like dirt.
Charles Simeon knew what it was like to have parishioners treat him like dirt. At the start of his ministry in Cambridge they did everything but run him out of town. They locked the pews so that folk could not come to hear him preach. They threw benches he put in the aisles out in the yard, so that those who came anyway had nowhere to sit. Eventually, Simeon won them by his love and his faithfulness. When he died the whole University shut down and the entire town paid him homage. But those first few years were tough. He wrote:
“The tender heart, the broken and contrite spirit are to me far above all the joys that I could ever hope for in this (life). I long to be in my proper place, my hand on my mouth, and my mouth in the dust..” (Charles Simeon, H. C. G. Moule, p.134)
5. And the fifth and final thing Paul does is remind them that godly leaders are genuinely God-centered.
I know that sounds tautological. But those of us in ministry so often forget that it’s not all about us. It’s all about God. Note, in v.5, Paul says: “The Lord assigns to each of us his task.” And in v.6, “We plant and water; but God (gives) the growth.” And v.9, “We are God’s fellow workers…” That doesn’t mean that Paul and Apollos are partners with God, as if they were a happy threesome, all jointly yoked together. Sometimes one hears the phrase that we are all “co-creators” with God. That strikes me as bordering on blasphemy.
No, Paul’s sense here is that we are God’s paid agents -- not his colleagues, but his agents. (C. K. Barrett) And this is a hard lesson to learn, because we so often think of the ordained ministry as a profession with dignity, perquisites, and emoluments – and therefore deserving of respect, and even reverence: “Yes, Father. No, Father….”
The sooner we remember that God is at work in the people to whom we minister, the better. It is not up to us to dispense blessing. That’s God’s work. It’s not up to us to bring comfort. That’s God’s work. It’s not up to us to meet all the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of our people. That’s God’s work. We are not omni competent. When we think we are, we are on a fast track to burnout. If you happen to be the kind of person who never sees a need you feel you shouldn’t meet, never sees a problem you don’t feel compelled to solve, never sees an opportunity you don’t feel you should seize…then you will be thinking sabbatical from day one.
I had a predecessor in my parish whose bedside manner left something to be desired. But his theology was right on the money. As he chatted with some sufferer in the hospital, he would often ask: “What do you think God is saying to you through all this?” “Why do you think God has allowed this in your life?” That’s risky and gutsy. But it’s God-centered, isn’t it?
As George Herbert wrote:
“Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything, to do it as for thee.
All may of thee partake; nothing can be so mean,
Which with this tincture, ‘for thy sake’, will not grow bright and clean.
This is the famous stone that turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own cannot for less be told.
So, what have we here – almost as an aside, while Paul deals with the immaturity of his young congregation in Corinth are 5 indelible marks of godly ministry, 5 certain traits of mature Christian leadership.
We will bring others to faith. It’s been said that Baptists and Pentecostals are good obstetricians, while we Anglicans are good pediatricians. (Given the average age of Episcopalians, and the decline in church membership, it may soon be said that what we are best at being is undertakers!). But let’s celebrate the fact that there is much in our Anglican tradition that feeds young believers and grows earnest Christians into thoughtful disciples. We do have lots of offer the worldwide church. But we need obstetricians. May a mark of our ministry be that what we say and how we live makes believers out of skeptics, and disciples out of seekers. “Do the work of an evangelist.”
We will nurture young followers so that they grow into maturity. M. Scott Peck says: “attention is the form that love takes in our fast paced society today.” Will you preach and teach in such a way that the Word dwells deeply in the hearts of your people, and the Spirit is released that they “sing psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs…to the Lord?” (Eph. 5:19) More especially, will you spot 4 or 5 key people each year and pour your life into them, turning them from believers into fully devoted followers of the Lord?
We will share leadership with our colleagues – never hogging the limelight, never grabbing the mike, never having to have the last word, never projecting our gifts onto everyone else while demeaning their gifts in the process. Godly leaders are team builders. We are short on self-promotion, and long on encouragement. We enable those around us and affirm their gifts even if they have never seen the inside of a seminary or never parsed a Greek sentence. One of the happiest days I can remember in my former parish was when I asked the janitor to preach in the main Sunday service. He was a man who had been incarcerated and had been an alcoholic before the Salvation Army got a hold of him. When he preached, people hung on every word. They wanted more.
We will be humble. Though it goes against the grain of everything we’ve been taught: fulfill your dreams, assert your self, look out for #1 we will allow God in his Grace to help us to “think of ourselves soberly”. We don’t need to become doormats. But people will occasionally treat us as dirt, and our reaction will tell us whether humility has found a place in our souls.
Lastly, We will remember that it’s all about God. Ministry is not about us. We will neither wilt at the first sign of criticism, nor bristle at the first hint that we might not possess all the gifts needed for making it into the Ministry Hall of Fame.
“Let go, and let God” may be a bit hackneyed, and it can lead to an unhealthy passivity. But for those of you who, like myself, are tempted to be control freaks, master minders, answer men, or compulsive overachievers – we need to say this simple mantra over and over again.
“What, then, is Apollos? What is Paul?” You are merely men and women, and we are merely servants… It’s God who gives the growth….I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it…”
John Cotton, the famous American Puritan preacher in Massachusetts, had 7 tests, by which to measure if you really have a vocation, a calling from God. His last one was this: You will know if you have a calling if you can let go of your work when the time comes, and trust that God will raise up others to carry it on.”
This was, of course, the way of Jesus. There is a story, just a story, of a bombed out church in Europe at the end of World War II. A statue of Jesus had fallen when the church had been destroyed. It was pretty well in tact. Only the two hands had been broken off and smashed. Rather than repair the hands, the members of the church decided to raise the handless statue in its old place, and put a plaque beneath it. The plaque simply said: “I have no hands but yours.”
Ministry is His work through us. We are servants, diakonia. Those we serve are God’s field, God’s building. And so God’s word to this worldly, immature but extraordinarily gifted church was that it needs godly, mature, and – yes – gifted leaders who will take the Apostolic gospel and make it live in their lives.
I’ve made four trips to Corinth. Its awesome to stand in front of the Judgment Seat where, in the days of St. Paul, Gallio sat in judgment on this short, beady-eyed, hook-nosed man who called himself an Apostle of Jesus Christ. The town was up in arms. God’s ancient people, the Jews, wanted him thrown out of town. They saw him as an enemy of the peace they had procured from their Roman governors. Standing there before the judge, Paul almost despaired of life itself.
But God had a call on his life, as he does on each of ours; and Paul did not leave. “I have many people in this city,” he was told. Even in a worldly atmosphere, where the church is sucked in by the surrounding culture God has many people – people yet undiscovered, yet un-awakened, yet unconverted. And so we read in Acts 18 that Paul stayed 18 months in Corinth, teaching the Word of God among them.”
What they needed was godly, mature leadership, and Paul stayed with them until such could be won, discipled, trained, and released. Friends, look at the churches to which God will be sending you with these eyes, and you will see people growing out of infancy into maturity and godliness.
Peter C. Moore
Trinity School for Ministry
Ambridge, PA 15003
EUGENE H. PETERSON
Christians are quite serious in believing that when they gather together for worship and work, God is present and sovereign, really present and absolutely sovereign. God creates and guides, God saves and heals, God corrects and blesses, God calls and judges. With such comprehensive and personal leadership from God, what is the place of human leadership?
Quite obviously, it has to be second place. It must not elbow its way to the front, it must not bossily take over. Ego-centered, ego-prominent leadership betrays the Master. The best leadership in spiritual communities formed in the name of Jesus, the Messiah, is inconspicuous, not calling attention to itself but not sacrificing anything in the way of conviction and firmness either.
In his letters to two young associates – Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete – we see Paul encouraging and guiding the development of just such leadership. What he had learned so thoroughly himself, he was now passing on, and showing them, in turn, how to develop a similar leadership in local congregations. This is essential reading because ill-directed and badly formed spiritual leadership causes much damage in souls. Paul in both his life and his letters shows us how to do it right.
(From his introduction to I and 2 Timothy & Titus, The Message Bible, 2002)
The Kind of Leader We Want
BISHOP ALFRED STANWAY
What governs any organization are the goals that they have set. And the goal we have is the kind of leader we want.
I want to tell you what I think that kind of person ought to be. First of all, somebody who is unashamed of the gospel of Christ. Paul says he is unashamed of it because it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone that believes, unashamed of it because it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone that believes, unashamed of ti because of its content, the content of the gospel that speaks of our glorious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It raises him up as the great name above all names in heaven and on earth. It is the one real hope that will meet the needs of all mankind. Second, he is unashamed because of tis truth. For if the gospel is not true, we have no message to proclaim, we have no right to be in the Church of God at all. Thirdly, [the gospel has] power. God has the power to change lives. We want the students to know that power in their own lives, how greatly he can change their lives and set them free, and then to see it in the lives of others and in those to whom they minister.
And certainly I want them to be men and women of prayer. It’s not enough to be able to teach about prayer or to talk about prayer, but they must need to be able to go to the secret place and know that they will be heard. They go there so their ministries may be enriched after leaving this school; so that their sermons may be alive; so that their counseling may do what it’s meant to do, to draw people back to God; and so that their pastoral care may be gracious and loving; and so that they themselves, because they have been men and women of prayer, will be free of anxiety, and therefore, able to be set free to do the work of the Lord.
Then they should be liberated persons. That word has so many connotations, but I always speak of it in the biblical sense. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” “If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed.” The freedom that Christ gives, the real freedom from the bondage of sin, the freedom from those habits that keep a person from being the kind of leader God meant him to be. Then the freedom from the deadness of self-interest. You can feel the sadness in Paul’s life when he is writing to the Philippian Church and says, “I have no man whom I can send, for they all seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ.” And then he spoke of Timothy. The whole thing changes. Shortly he can send Timothy; Timothy, the different one; Timothy, the one who first of all sought the things of Jesus Christ. The sad thing is that people can be in the ministry and not seek first the kingdom of God. We hope that those who go to this school will be delivered from the deadness of self-interest.
Then, the students need to be set free of the love of money and possessions. Americans are very rich people indeed, and have a very large share of the world’s goods. And some people feel that somehow or other, when you give up a great deal to become a minister of the gospel of Christ and serve the Lord, you won’t have a temptation for the love of things or the love of money. Paul wrote to Timothy to beware of the love of money because some, having loved it, pierced themselves through with many sorrows. It doesn’t matter whether you have a lot or whether you have a little. You can still be possessed by the love of money. And because you’ve been without, you may desire it more than some who’ve got it, and it’s always a dead path for the minister of the gospel of Christ.
A man was about to go to a parish recently and he came to consult me. “What shall I say about my salary?” I said, “Tell them to put it down in black and white what they are going to give you, set down the terms of service, and tell them in advance that you’ll take what they give you.” He said, “Do you mean that?” I said, “I mean that absolutely. Take what they’ll give you.” There are only two ways for the minister of the gospel of Christ. He can look after his own interests, and God will let him. Or he can look after the interests of the kingdom of God, and God will look after his interests. So I’ve found it.
And then the students need to be delivered of the tyranny of the love of the world. John puts it very strongly when he says, “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” What is the love of the world? Well, some people break it down to definitions of little, small things. I like the definition that Archbishop Fisher gave when he visited us in East Africa. He said that the world is all that portion of society that is organized outside of three great principles: The sovereign rule of God, the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and the life of the world to come. He went on to say that a great deal of society is organized outside those principles. That is society where this world is their horizon, where there is nothing up and over and beyond this world.
But if the students are going to be delivered from those things, they’re going to be bound by other things. They’re going to be bound as the slaves of Christ. In the old slave laws, when a man was due to go out after his seven years, if he wanted to, he could go to his master and say, “I love my master, I will not go out free.”
If we love our Master, we will not go out free. We are committed and bound by that commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ, bound by our baptismal promises, some of us bound by ordination, bound by the secret moment when we told the Lord we would give him all there is of our lives. And that commitment is there. But, accepting Christ as our Lord and Master is the very key to life itself. That’s what integrates personality, that’s what establishes purpose in life. I read the other day about Bertrand Russell. He said, “Purpose? There is no purpose in life. It’s like a leaf on a tree. It can go anywhere. The only purpose is the purpose of a fiend.” But the Christian has found his purpose in his commitment to his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
He is also bound by his indebtedness to preach the gospel. Paul says, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel, I am a debtor both to the Jew and the Greek.” How can a person be a recipient of the grace of God and not want to take it to others? I want to say that if someone is unconcerned with the spread of the gospel of Christ, it must be a very weak kind of grace that he’s got hold of. There is nothing plainer than this, that if a person really loves the Lord and depends on him for the whole of his salvation, he wants to make that claim known to others. Then he is indebted to preach God’s Word and teach God’s Word. It’s from the Word of God that we get our instruction. It’s not just that God has spoken long ago and that has been recorded in the Word of God. It’s not that God has spoken, but God speaks today through his Word. There is a quotation, “We have devised a method of studying the Word of God out of which no word from God ever comes.” If God hasn’t spoken, then we have no message to proclaim; if God has spoken, we have a message to preach. Woe be to us if we preach some other message.
Then the fourth mark of the students we want is that they shall be seekers after holiness. I didn’t know that word was so bad in the States. The writer to the Hebrews says “Holiness without which no man will see the Lord.” “Be ye holy,” says the scripture, “because I am holy.” It is the mark of Christian people. When a Christian minister gives up the battle for holiness, he’s already a backslider at heart. Whenever he reaches a stage where he is satisfied with his progress in the Christian life, …he is a backslider. “I’ve not yet attained,” [says Paul]. Always in the Christian life there is more beyond. And always the more we walk with God, the more we’ll be discontented with the quality of life we have. For there are riches, better things beyond, and we should be marked by that desire for holiness. Paul, the Apostle, said, “I make it my ambition to please Christ in all things.” One single sentence can change the life and pattern of a person. That is his aim, in his home life, in his study, in his work, in his witness, in his reading, in his giving, in his day-by-day conversations, in his ambition to please Christ.
I remember when we were being trained for the compulsory military training we had in Australia (and it was done in spare time, too) we had to go down to the rifle range and qualify every year in shooting; and if you didn’t qualify, you had to keep shooting until you did. The great thing was to qualify quickly. I remember the first time I went down there, there was a chap next to me who was waving his gun around and waving and waving. And the Sergeant-Major came and had one look at him, and he said, “Man, if you aim at nothing, you’re bound to hit it.” What are you aiming at? Are you like Paul, who said, “I make it my ambition to please Christ in all things?”
Then a leader needs to have compassion for the poor and needy. And the most needy are those without the gospel of Christ. I was recently going to speak on evangelism at a diocesan conference, and the Diocesan Bishop wanted to know about the “Bishop from Australia,” so he rang me up to have a “visit” with me on the telephone. He wanted to make quite sure I wasn’t against social action. We talked for a little while about the first blind school in Tanganyika, which was in our diocese; the first leprosy work; the hospitals, the adult literacy campaigns; malnutrition; the first operations for corneal grafts to give sight to the blind. He was quite happy.
But it is a mark of the Christian to have compassion. Jesus looked at that “great crowd of people” and he had compassion upon them. The disciples said, “Let us send them away.” And Jesus said, “There is no need to send them away. Give ye them to eat.”
Then they should be people who are alive with the life of the Spirit of God. What’s the good in being able to speak well, to be sound in doctrine, and know the way you ought to live if the whole of your life is not made alive with the Spirit of God? There is one mark which the Spirit of God can give to people who are called ministers that will make people know that they are God’s leaders, and it is this: when they speak, men and women will hear God’s voice speaking through them. Then they’ll know. That’s our “imprimatur.” It’s greater than any degree you can get from Trinity School. It’s greater than any qualifications you can get in the United States or elsewhere. It’s better than any praise that men can give you, that imprimatur of the Spirit of God himself. If you speak, then people hear God speaking to them. Then they know you are a person of God.
Then finally, the students need to be gripped with a deep sense of gratitude for the privilege of being called to be Christ’s servant. For if ever a leader begins to think what he is putting into the ministry, or what great favor he is performing for the people that he is ministering to or the organization which he has joined, he’s half dead. There is nothing quite like the privilege of being God’s servant. I want to put this kind of question to all of you today: if other people knew you like God knows you, all your faults and all your thoughts, all your sins, all the things in your heart that have ever been there, all the wrong thoughts that you’ve ever had, would they trust you with the kind of work that God trusts you with? Here is the supreme confidence that God has in his own grace. He’ll take the likes of you and me and give us the privilege of being his servant. He’s got to take people like you and me. He has no others. That’s the only kind he possesses. People who are at best weak men, weak women, made strong. The Christian life is not a case of girding up your loins and saying “I will be strong.” It is a case of acknowledging your weakness. Paul said, “When I am weak, then I am strong, for God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.” When a leader loses the sense of gratitude for being called to God’s service, then there is something very wrong with his work in ministry.
The preceding excerpt is from the opening convocation address for Trinity School for Ministry offered by Bishop Alfred Stanway, its first Dean and President, on September 26, 1976.
Following Jesus in an Era of Political Change
LANGHAM PARTNERSHIP, CHARLESTON, SC
This has been a very difficult and challenging task - being asked to speak to this title(for it was not my own choice!) - trying to connect both halves of the title.
If I’d been asked to speak on “Following Jesus” - I could have given a straightforward account of discipleship, and some generalities by way of challenge, from some well-known Bible texts.
If I’d been asked to comment on the momentous political changes of the past year, I would probably have declined. I am usually willing to share my opinions in private conversation, but - it’s not my habit to expatiate on politics in a public lecture setting - especially when I’m a guest in another country.
But putting the two together? Challenged me to think in biblical categories about what appears to be happening in the world today – thinking particularly of the western world in general, and the UK and USA in particular.
That ought to be the task of those of us who are viewed as “biblical experts” - not just to expound the Bible in general terms, but to discern how it still speaks into the contemporary world - which is usually very uncomfortable, as well as ultimately reassuring, once we remember the story we are actually in, not just the story that is being spun around us.
So I ask in advance for your grace and forgiveness if I happen to offend anybody – I am trying to speak with sincerity and respect.
The Patterns of History : Rise and Fall of Nations
As a lifelong student of the Old Testament, I tend to see the story of empires that it tells as a pattern that repeats throughout history, under the sovereign governance of the LORD God of Israel. The Torah, Prophets, and the Psalms and Wisdom writings all affirm that God rules over all nations, and that they rise and fall according to the criteria he has established for human life on earth. There are moral principles built into our world since creation.
So God may raise up nations and empires to accomplish his purposes, but when their arrogance, violence and depravity reach an intolerable level, God acts in judgment and they collapse, or sink to levels of global insignificance, or even depart from the stage of history altogether.
E.g. – in biblical times: Egypt, the Amorite nations in Canaan, Solomon’s small empire, the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans….
Some last a mere 70 years (Babylon), others 700(Rome), but none last forever.
The collapse of these once-great nations and empires usually seems to include (from both biblical records and other historical research into ancient empires)
- internal corrosion (moral depravity; economic inequality and the resentment and violence it generated; excessive violence; political corruption, venality, nepotism and greed),
- and external factors (changed economic conditions, e.g. caused by destruction of fertile land, or famine; rise of rivals and enemies, or simply more energetic, thrusting cultures.
In biblical times, such collapse is also interpreted as the judgment of God, mediated through those circumstances and realities. For all empires generate, thrive on and depend on, a degree of arrogance, usually combined with ethno-centric or racist pride and superiority. And that kind of hybris -- satanic in its origin but all too human in its manifestation -- is quintessentially characteristic of our human fallenness, abhorrent to God, and ultimately self-destructive, as the principles of God’s righteous governance of history work themselves out over time.
As regards our western world, I have believed and observed for a long time that there are signs of such collapse, which may also be interpreted biblically as the outworking of God’s judgment, in these later centuries of western civilization in general, and in the social, economic and political direction of the cultures of the UK and the USA in particular(though not uniquely).
Even a trivial illustration makes the point. Travel a few times, (or many, as I’ve done), in Asia (on Asian airlines, through Asian airports), and return to the west, and the comparison grows more and more clear. You sense the thrusting ambition, the optimism, the energetic youthfulness and commitment to education, of some Asian cultures; and then you come back to the weary, cynical, dilapidated, ageing, and pessimistic world of the west…. Which culture is on the way up, or on the way down?
If the 19th Century was dominated by the British Empire, and the 20th Century saw the USA rise to global leadership, it seems almost certain that the 21st Century will eventually be China’s. (I have been told that Richard Nixon made this prediction a long time ago). What that will mean for the West – only God knows. And what will it mean that God has been at work in China for half a century bringing somewhere around 100 million people to the Christian faith? What is God preparing the world for in such shifts and changes – political and spiritual?
Now, I am NOT saying that “they are more righteous” than us, or anything so simplistic. The OT warned Israel against that kind of binary assumption as to who is more righteous or wicked than another (see Deuteronomy 9). Rather, if we apply the biblical criteria provided by God’s warnings to Israel and other nations, then western civilisation is in a spiral of decline that looks increasingly terminal.
What are the symptoms? Just a few…
Since the Enlightenment in Europe, and all that it then spawned there and in the USA, we have had:
- centuries of de-facto functional atheism in the public square. God is reduced to a slogan, or an ironic “In God we trust” on bank-notes, or a flag in the chancel – but irrelevant (in terms of his moral laws and demands) in public discourse and decision-making. (As Jonny Cash sang, in The Wanderer, “I stopped outside a church house / where the citizens like to sit / They say they want the kingdom / But they don’t want God in it”)
- We live in societies that were historically founded on, and continue to profit from, genocide, slavery, colonialism and the massive trade in weapons and wars.
- increasing neglect of the poor (not just in the so-called “Third World” but in our own nations), alongside excessive accumulation of wealth by the very very few – a process of growing inequality that has got even worse since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2009 (which served to increase the wealth of some while condemning whole swathes of societies around the world to paying the cost).
- We have witnessed, or remembered, the horrors of two world wars in the 20th century, from which we seem to have learned nothing, and now even to be unravelling the efforts and structures that were put in place after the Second to sustain peace (of sorts)
- The sexual revolutions since the 1960s have had disastrous and long-term negative effects on families and the social glue of our culture, and generated incalculable financial cost on the public purse (the costs of family breakdown in the UK estimated at £44 billion per annum)
So, yes, when I contemplate the two biggest surprises of 2016 – Brexit and the election of Mr Donald Trump - I see a continuation, indeed an acceleration of some of those trajectories.
Brexit – You will not find it hard to discern what my own view is on this (!). The referendum itself was an utterly unnecessary exercise, the product of David Cameron’s political folly and arrogance (although, having walked away from the mess he created the morning after, he now apparently gets paid $120,000 an hour to lecture about it by the Washington Bureau of Speakers). The process and the result has fractured the UK. There was a very narrow majority: 51.9% to 48.1% - a difference of just over 1 million voters – to leave the European Union. Almost half the electorate now have to live with a decision they did not want. The UK now has two vehemently opposed camps, of reciprocal blame and recrimination. And worst of all, we have seen a horrendous rise of xenophobic words and actions, racist attacks (including the murder of an MP – an extreme rarity in Britain). Brexit has “legitimized” anti-foreigner language and actions, and let racism come blatantly out into the open. We hear of the anxieties of European citizens who have lived and worked perfectly legitimately in the UK for years(sometimes for decades – the UK has been a member of the EU for 40 years), and contributed massively to whole sections of the economy (in farming, food, health, education, construction, and other areas), who now have no assurance of being able to stay. It may lead to the break up of the UK itself, since Scotland and N. Ireland (and London) voted strongly to remain in the EU. And potentially, a long term impact may be the fracturing of the European Union itself, which (for all its well-recognized faults and failures) has spent the past 70 years trying to bring peace and collaboration to a continent historically wracked by wars for centuries.
Such a political “earthquake” has baffled me, and many others.
How has it happened, I ask myself, that Britain swung so quickly from the atmosphere of the London 2012 Olympics when we welcomed the world, and there was such a feeling of international generosity and joy on the streets of London – of openness to the world and friendly, cheerful internationalism(I remember it well; we live in London), to the atmosphere of the Brexit campaign and the toxic xenophobia, racist hatred and constant outpouring of lies and prejudice about immigration, that dominated some of our tabloid press and politicians like Nigel Farage (feted over here by Donald Tump, though not even an MP in Westminster)?
The election in the USA: which also appears to have split the country down the middle (or shown up so luridly the split that was already there). As with the Brexit referendum, democracy seemed very poorly served, with your now President-elect elected by the oddity of your constitutional system and electoral college, on the basis of a minority of the popular vote (approximately 3 million fewer, apparently). And as in the UK, people are living, it seems, in echo chambers of their own opinions amplified by the algorithms of the social media, hearing only the voices and believing only the stories that reflect their own views. And, as in the UK, we witness a very nasty escalation of racist voices and violence.
Once again, it is baffling to many outside observers.
We need to turn back to the Bible.
As I try to interpret these questions and reflections biblically, my mind cannot help going to the Book of Judges. For there we see a story of increasing fragmentation and violence, with accelerating social decline, tribal wars, and acts of increasing depravity, including mass murders. And the same questions arise.
How could it happen that a nation, blessed by God with deliverance from persecution (which they celebrated annually in the Thanksgiving feast of Passover), a nation gifted with a fertile land of their own, a nation established on the basis of a constitution of rights and responsibilities (which we call the law of Moses, especially Deuteronomy) – how could such a blessed and privileged people fall into such dysfunctional disintegration over a few generations? How indeed, but they did. And amazingly the Bible records it “for our learning”, as Paul said. But have we learned anything?
Before we go any further down that road, let’s spend some time thinking about what the Bible tells us about God’s desire for social and political life. A lot more than many people think- especially if they never read the Old Testament. I’ll mention three points out of many. There is a remarkably rich and comprehensive political, economic and social theology and ethic in the Bible, which western Christianity has pretty well ignored for centuries.
The Bible and the Political Arena
a) The Bible reveals the standards that God requires of government
The God of Old Testament Israel showed himself passionately concerned about the political life of his people. He provided multiple laws to govern those who governed, and the voice of the prophets to challenge and correct. A few examples of the values and standards that God holds up for the behaviour of those in public office.
i) Deuteronony 17:14-20. The law of the king. Modesty
Israel’s king was not to be like monarchies of surrounding cultures – which built their political authority on spectacular extravagance of wealth and all the trappings of power and greed.
God’s law put a prohibition on weapons(horses / chariots), harems, and excessive silver and gold.
A king in Israel (and all the government apparatus that would surround him) was NOT to be characterized by
- Horses, harems, and hoarding
- Weapons, women, and wealth
- Guns, girls, and greed
Or in the classic trio: money, sex and power.
These standards were broken by Solomon, of course, and most kings who followed him -- and by many political and religious leaders ever since. But God wanted a very different kind of politics.
ii) 1 Sam. 12:1-5 Accountability in public office. Integrity
Samuel opens the books, makes himself accountable to the people. His words constitute a kind of “audit” invitation. Samuel had held public leadership for a lifetime, in a position of judicial, military and political leadership. But he calls on the people as witnesses and God as judge. He is open for inspection. He claims that he has acted with integrity, but he submits that claim to public accountability.
Specifically, Samuel claims:
- That he had not profited from public office for personal gain
- That he had not betrayed public trust by corruption and bribery
Those are key standards - and would still be held up, of course, as ideals in our own political realm, and are protected by constitutional restrictions, emolument clauses, avoidance of conflict of interest, etc. The principles go back a long way, and Samuel’s simple words express them within the culture of Israel at that time.
Samuel also warned the people (in 1 Sam 8:10-20) that the kings they wanted to have ruling them would do exactly those things – that they would twist the whole political and economic system to the advantage and enrichment of themselves and their cronies– as indeed they did in the centuries to follow. And still do.
iii) Psalm 72:4, 12-14; Prov. 31:3, 8-9; Jer. 22:1-5, 13-17; Amos 5:11-15, etc. Justice
God’s criterion for the moral evaluation of government, is the extent to which those in power exercise the power entrusted to them on behalf of the powerless, and ensure justice for the poor, oppressed and exploited, including the foreigner. The latter (foreigners, immigrants) are particularly prominent in OT law as needing protection and justice. “Love the foreigner as yourself” balances “Love your neighbour asyourself” (Leviticus 19:18 and 34).
b) The Bible exposes the idols that God rejects
Idolatry a very important topic in the Bible - much neglected by contemporary evangelical Christians, partly because we are unconsciously involved with, and sometimes dominated by, the false gods of the people around us(like Old Testament Israel).
One reason (IMHO) for the slow but accelerating collapse of western civilization is the profoundly syncretistic and idolatrous nature of western Christianity.
If you want a wider study of this issue from a missional point of view, I have surveyed the theme in The Mission of God, (Intervarsity Press), ch. 5 (about 50 pages of biblical analysis and application of what idolatry is and does, then and now).
The issue loomed large in God’s preparation of Israel for moving into the land of Canaan. E.g. the serious and prolonged warning of Deut. 4. At all costs, avoid idolatry!
There are all kinds of false gods and idols in human cultures, but in relation to Israel’s social, economic and political life, three could be highlighted as particularly toxic and destructive:
- The idol of prosperity. Baal. Baal was the god of sex and fertility (human, animal, and crops), god of business deals and money, god of the land itself - god of everything that seemed to matter in everyday life. You could keep Yahweh for national identity (“God of Israel”), or as a kind of figurehead who would “bless” the country (whatever that means); a great God to have for Sabbath days and festivals, or in battles, but rest of life? – you need Baal – for health and wealth.
Baal, I believe, is “alive and well” in western culture – with our idolizing of sex and money. As the Canaanites (and Israel after them) worshipped fertility, so we worship its modern equivalents. Jesus and the NT call it “Mammon”. It still dominates our culture in so many ways - including the political realm, when it seems utterly driven by exorbitant wealth and corporate interests.
- The idol of national pride. Jeroboam’s bull images. There is a revealing story in 1 Kings. 12. In order to bolster his own state and its security, after the split with Rehoboam, Jeroboam fabricates gods, apparently Yahweh-lookalikes, at either end of his kingdom. It was a national cultural religion, to establish the pride of his own kingdom as over against his rival – Judah. He was “using” God to serve the “image” , pride and security of his own state.
Later, the kings of Judah idolized the gods of Assyria – even bringing their statues into the temple - why? Because they admired the power of its empire. Ahaz. Manasseh. The Assyrians were ruthless, they were smart, they were great, they knew how to conquer and rule - so if you want to be great, get with them! So the idolatry of national status – sought or bought - led to increasing social evil, domestic violence, massive loss of national treasure in tribute paid to Assyria, absurd posturings on the international stage, between Assyria, Egypt and Babylon, and the cost of military expeditions and needless alliances and conflicts.
Jonah. The book challenges the idea that Yahweh existed merely to bless Israel and slam their enemies. It subverts the idolatry of national pride and its racist undertone.
So what makes a nation great? Deuteronomy answered that in
Deuteronomy. 4:6-8 – national greatness was not a matter of being feared or resented by other nations, but being a model of godliness and social justice to other nations– a model that would raise curiosity and admiration.
- The idol of self-exaltation. This can be personal. It goes right back to the fall, when we chose the path of moral autonomy, exalting our own self above the goodness and authority of our Creator. For good reason, Pride is listed as the first of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins. It is the idolatry of the self.
But it also afflicts whole cultures and nations. The positive value of rugged self-reliance easily morphs into the vice of self-worship and narcissism, which has become characteristic of western culture, and now afflicts some of our leaders. You may have heard the little ditty about the origin of the word “narcissism” – the Greek myth of Narcissus, a boy who fell in love with himself by gazing at his own reflection in a pool, until he fell in and drowned.
There was a young chap called Narcissus
Who thought himself rather delicious.
He swooned by a pool
At his reflection, the fool,
So now he sleeps with the fishes.
Isaiah saw right through that kind of self-exalting, self-defending arrogance, and called it out for the sheer idolatry that it truly is, when whole societies and their rulers succumb to it
ReadIsa. 2:7-9; 12, 17-18(note the reference to the “idols” at the end).
Ezekiel identifies this as the primary idolatry of the great trading nation of Tyre, and the empire of Egypt - He exposes the vaunting, mad arrogance of these rulers in their wealth and power.
Read: Ezek. 28:2-5 (The king of Tyre, boasting about his enormous trading wealth, as if it made him a god)
Ezek 29:3 (The Pharaoh of Egypt – boasting as if he owned and created the River Nile!)
The story of Israel in the Old Testament is the story of one great long struggle between Yahweh the living God, the Creator and Redeemer, holy and just, true and good - and the idols that constantly threatened and tempted Israel – idols that are still lurking in our western cultures and increasingly dominating our politics.
But the Bible does more than expose these realities: it also warns us of the terrible price that such idolatry demands in the end. False gods always cost you in the end.
So the Bible reveals the standards God requires, and exposes the idols God rejects, but more than that,
c) The Bible discerns the judgment that God operates within history
As we saw, the Book of Judges portrays a downward spiral, as repeated idolatry results in national decline, fragmentation, increasing violence, and eventual anarchy.
The explanation towards the end of the book is that “every one did what was right in his own eyes”, and “there was no king in Israel” - which may imply that they had rejected Yahweh as their true king, which he was, but also hints that perhaps, if only they could get a really strong human king (“like all the other nations”), then that would solve the problems of idolatry, social fracturing and insecurity. Would it?
Along comes the monarchy in the next book, and after a shaky start (Saul), seems to do well (for a while), under David and early Solomon - and then? Within a generation, the cycle begins to repeat: breaking all the standards God required, going after all the idols God rejected- and reaping the judgment that God had threatened.
The books of Samuel and Kings are in the Former Prophets - that is, they interpret that history of the monarchy in Israel from a prophetic perspective - they see things as God saw them. And when set alongside the books of the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve), they show very clearly how the people of Israel went from one degree of idolatry to another, generation after generation, led by their rulers. Successive governments failed to halt the slide - with very few exceptions (Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah). Ignoring the warnings of the prophets of the disaster that such behaviour would bring, they went on spiralling downwards.
What were the symptoms? What was happening in this process? How can we learn from it?
The biblical historical record and the prophetic commentary highlight:
- Increasing economic disparity, with wealth accumulating in fewer hands and multitudes being reduced to poverty and homelessness (Isal 5:8; Mic. 2:1-2)
- Corruption of the political system, through government favours, cronyism, nepotism and patronage(1 Sam. 8)
- Corruption of the judicial system, through control by the wealthy, and widespread bribery (Amos)
- Increase in violence, bloodshed, political murders, etc(Isa. 1)
- Widespread and religiously approved sexual promiscuity (Hosea)
- A whole culture of lies and denialand moral confusion (Jer. 2)
- Paralysis of government through warring factions(Zedekiah, and the pro- and anti-Babylonian parties, in the final ten years of the kingdom of Judah)
These lurid factors of Israel’s political and economic life were not something separate from their religious unfaithfulness to Yahweh their God(idolatry); they are in fact the evidence and outworking of it. When you worship the false gods - the kind of idols identified above – then this is what happens in society.
Until, in the end, after centuries of prophetic warnings and divine patience, God gave them up to the inevitable operation of his moral judgment. As Ezekiel and Jeremiah put it - how could God do otherwise than bring his judgment on such a depraved society, that was behaving even worse than the Canaanites they had driven out centuries earlier? So, the nation collapsed -- corroded from within and attacked from without -- into virtual extinction in exile. And that would have been The End, had it not been for the grace and long-term missional goal and promises of God going back to Abraham. Israel was restored to their land two generations later. But the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon was the most traumatic event in the history of OT Israel, and the outworking of God’s judgment, mediated through the political and military realities of their day. The Book of Lamentations leaves us shuddering at the cost the whole society paid for the sin and folly, primarily, of their leaders.
The point is: this Old Testamentcycle of idolatry leading to ever increasing social dissolution is also “written for our learning.” It was, at one level, unique as the history of the covenant people, Old Testament Israel. But at another level, Israel embodied and lived out the sins of humanity itself, as a nation among the nations, tempted to go the way of the nations, and – but for the grace and mission of God – suffering the ultimate fate of so many other nations – extinction.
That is how Paul interprets the human predicament in Romans 1. His portrayal draws heavily on the Old Testament scriptures (just as his theology of salvation also starts with Abraham). And he makes it very clear: when human beings (individuals, nations, whole cultures), persist in following idols, in the end God “gives them up” to what they want andwhat they worship, and God’s judgment works itself out in the kind of social disintegration Paul describes. The things he lists are not so much the reasons for God’s judgment, as the content of God’s judgment. This is what society becomes, with all the suffering that such practices generate, when God gives it up to its own idolatry and choices.
Just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Rom. 1:28-32).
For in the end, when you submit to the idols (as western cultures have been doing now for about 250 years), the idols will eventually come to rule over you.
And that, I think, is what Brexit and the USA election are symptomatic of. They exemplify, they are a product of, a long-term idolatry and short-term folly. And they may well play some part, in God’s sovereign governance of the history of nations, in the outworking of God’s principles of judgment on our cultures. Only God knows, but that is how it seems to me.
The idols have come to rule.
God’s judgment gives us up to the gods we choose. It is sometimes said, “You get the government you deserve.” The Bible says, “And you get the gods you worship.” And the two are very closely related.
In the end, God says, “Here is your king, O Israel.” This is what you asked for, this is what you get. The principles of God’s judgment work themselves out in the realities of humanly chosen ends and means, human decisions and directions, human failures and follies. We are reaping what we have been sowing for generations.
It seems to me that recent events in both UK and USA illustrate, and even in some ways embody all of the points above – about God’s standards, and about the idols.
There has been clear flouting of God’s standards. The processes in both countries (Brexit and the election) have been
- corrupted by massive expenditures of wealth, for campaigns and propaganda, along with jaw-dropping arrogance from some of the key players.
- Marked by cavalier disregard for truth – with contradictions piled on false claims and false accusations, and so-called “fake news”. In Brexit, there was lying on an industrial scale, plastered on the side of a huge bus touring the country, and daily on the front pages of the tabloid press. Integrity and truth has been in very short supply.
The idols were pretty evident too.
- The idolatry of national arrogance, toppling over into overt racism, characterised one side of the Brexit argument (for Leave) - “Make Britain great again” “Take back control” “Foreigners out” etc. – plus the posters (portraying immigrants as an invading horde) and relentlessly racist headlines. I think you had your equivalents over here.
- And the idolatry of mammon. I found it depressing and disturbing that the only argument for Remain in the EU was economic - you’ll be poorer out than in. Self-interest alone. Very little was ever said about principles, ideals, standards and values implicit in the European project since two world wars. Nothing but “the money you might lose.” Well, that will probably be true, but to appeal to that alone as an argument merely illustrates the idolatrous power of mammon in our culture.
- And the idolatry of inflated egos and unconcealed personal ambitions. Some of the most despicable actions by our UK politicians in the Brexit campaign happened (as it seemed to many of us) purely out of self-interest and arrogant calculation of personal advantage (some of which back-fired badly, and some of which got rewarded).
And over here? For outside observers it seems clear that even those who supported your new President Elect were under no illusions about his flaws. It almost seems that he is a walking embodiment of some of those blatant idolatries of mammon, sexual promiscuity and narcissistic self-love. BUT, (this was the argument I heard from several much loved evangelical friends over here) – the alternative is even worse!! A vote for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats would mean potentially the end of religious liberty, an increase in “liberal” legislation, and Supreme Court appointments and rulings that would hinder Christian freedoms and flout Christian morals. In other words, they were saying, “We agree, with profound grief and frustration, that both options are bad, and we cannot and do not condone the words and behavior of Donald Trump, but, given that we must make a choice, we have to choose the lesser of two evils.” I must say that I deeply sympathize with the agony that this choice imposed on Christian people – faced with a system that had thrown up two such apparently deeply flawed candidates.
All I would ask, in relation to that “lesser of two evils” argument, and in relation to the topic we are considering here (following Jesus), is this(and I ask this with all due humility, respect, and awareness of the complexity and pain of the whole issue):
When did following Jesus ever depend on religious freedoms guaranteed by the state, or enshrined in its laws and constitution? Certainly not in the New Testament itself. It may be a matter of gratitude when the two can go along together (as they have in the small historical “blip” known as western “Christian” civilization), and there is no doubt that we should exercise our rights and responsibilities as citizens to defend freedom of religion wherever we can and advocate for such freedoms in our countries when we can do so. BUT, for the vast majority of Christian believers throughout most of history, and in most of the world today, following Jesus is a costly decision, under adverse political and legal circumstances at the very least, and often under severe discrimination, disadvantage, persecution and threat of death. Following Jesus is not something we can only do when the state allows us, or protects us, or grants favours to our institutions and endeavours. It is a calling for which we count the cost and remain faithful to Christ’s Lordship and God’s standards.
So if the choice was between a leader whom so many (even among his own party, supporters and voters) consider so unsuited to the dignity, demands, and enormous responsibilities of the exalted office of President of the USA, on the one hand, and the challenge of going on bearing witness to the Lord Jesus Christ as his followers, even if it becomes more costly as the state likely becomes less friendly and accommodating, on the other hand – I wonder how many American Christians thought the issue through in such terms? Perhaps many did, and still made their choice as they did. I am an outsider and do not wish to judge. But I ask the question.
So at last we must return to our title.
What then will following Jesus demand of us today?
- We must be kingdom people - submitting to the reign of God
Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, announcing its arrival in and with himself. The call to discipleship was fundamentally a challenge to accept and submit to the reign of God, and to shape the whole of life accordingly. That was the message of John the Baptist, followed by Jesus. And those whom he first called to be his followers knew both the challenge and the potential cost of living as citizens of the Kingdom of God in a world that boasted the kingdom of Rome and Caesar.
For them, it meant rejecting BOTH collusion with the political power and wealth of Rome (what we might call the right wing option), AND radical alternatives, whether of a religious or revolutionary nature (like the Essenes or the Zealots, what we might call the left wing option). And instead, they were called to practise the values of God’s kingdom, as taught and modelled by Jesus himself – breaking down social barriers, practising radical forgiveness and table fellowship, cancelling debts, turning the other cheek, generosity to the poor and the outsider, loving even the enemy. These were radical and subversive of the established order, boundaries and codes of their day – both Jewish and Roman.
For us, it means clearly recognizing the difference between the kingdom of God as taught and modelled by Jesus (including the way of suffering and death), and the “Christendom” way of thinking – that the best way to save the world is to rule the world, impose and protect “our religion” and demonize and persecute all opposition. i.e. to build an unholy alliance between “the Christian cause”, and ungodly state powers – until you end up with the “Holy Roman Empire” – which was a lot more “Roman” than “holy.” When we declare that Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar, we are acknowledging that we are called to follow the Jesus of the cross, not the “Jesus” of Constantine.
We need to re-examine our loyalties, and ask if we have submitted our political views, choices and support, to the criteria of God’s kingdom as revealed in Scripture.
- We must be Bible people - living by the story of God
If we are Christians we probably would claim to be Bible people already. But what do we think the Bible actually is? For some, it is a bookful of rules. For some a bookful of promises. For some a bookful of doctrines. It certainly includes plenty of all of those. But in the form that God has providentially given his Word to us, the Bible is fundamentally a story - or rather The Story - the story of God, the universe and everything, including the history and future of our world.
The trouble is, many Christians are simply living in the world’s story and trying to make the Bible somehow “relevant” to that – or using the Bible selectively to reinforce their personal aspirations or delusions. We have lost the plot – the biblical plot. We have forgotten the story we are supposed to be in.
The Bible tells the true story of the universe - a great six act drama:
Act 1 Creation
Act 2 Rebellion and sin
Act 3 God’s promise to Abraham and purpose through Old Testament Israel to redeem creation and people from every nation
Act 4 The accomplishment of that purpose through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – the heart of the gospel
Act 5 The ongoing mission of the church, from the Day of Pentecost to the return of Christ
Act 6 The new creation, the new heaven and earth, populated by the resurrection bodies of the redeemed from every age, every nation and every corner of the earth.
Followers of Jesus are called to live in and for that story – and to orient our lives in relation to what it tells us about who we are and why we are here, as the people of God for the sake of God’s mission. That story gives us our identity and our mission. That story tells us how we are to live, now as we participate in Act 5, in the light of what God has done and said (the past story and the teaching of the law and prophets, of Christ and the apostles – Acts 1-4) and what God will do (the certainty of new creation and all that will be true – and will not be true – then -- Act 6). Our lives should be governed by this great overarching story of the Bible. This is our narrative. This is who we are and what we are about in the world.
Like Daniel, living and working in Babylon but praying with his windows open towards Jerusalem, we have to live “in Babylon”, but we do not live “for Babylon” or by its story. We live in the world, but not by the world’s story, but by the story of God – the full biblical revelation.
Specifically, we live within “Act 5” of the great drama of scripture - the age of mission, between the ascension and the return of Christ. We are living IN the Bible’s story - what kind of people then do we need to be in order to live consistently with the story we are in?
- We must be contrast people - shining the light of God
And that, inevitably means that we must be different. Those who follow Jesus must be as distinctive as he was.
We live in a political era defined now, not only by “change” (it always was), but by lies (so-called “post-truth” culture) - on an industrial scale during the Brexit campaign; exaggerated unfulfillable promises and false hopes; unrelenting demonizing and blaming of the weak and poor for social problems they did not cause; corruption, nepotism, self-enrichment, and darkness in high places; - the kind of spiritual powers of evil that Paul warns us about in Eph. 6.
In such a world - which was much the same in Jesus’ day - he called his followers to be “salt and light” - the powerful combination of metaphors in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:13-16).
Where did Jesus get that idea, that his followers - disciples of the Messiah – should be “light” for the world? Read Isaiah 58:6-8, 10 - ethical nature of light. The light of good works, social justice and compassion.
John Stott often referred to salt and light in challenging Christians on their social responsibility. Both metaphors speak of contrast and distinctiveness.
- Salt: was primarily used to stem corruption and putrefaction in meat or fish.
- Light: the lamps used to give light in the darkness of a room, or home, or footpath.
a) The world around us is corrupt and dark
b) Followers of Jesus do have the power to make a difference to the world around them - just as salt and light do in the environments where they are “active”
a) We must therefore both penetrate society (not withdraw from it),
b) And yet also retain our distinctiveness within society.
- If meat goes rotten - no point blaming the meat. That’s what happens in its natural state. The question to ask is: Where was the salt?
- If a room goes dark – no point blaming the room. That’s what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask is: Where is the lamp?
- If society goes rotten – no point blaming society. That’s what happens in a world full of fallen sinners left to themselves. The question to ask is: Where are the Christians?
But if there is no real difference - then we become nothing less than part of the problem itself – contributing to the division and degeneration of society. And raising severe questions about the nature of our Christian faith - as are being raised by Christians in other parts of the world about the stance of many evangelicals in the USA elections. Frankly, and with sorrow, I tell you that evangelicals in other parts of the world, especially the majority world of Africa and Asia and Latin America, are baffled and dismayed at what has happened in the USA and the stance of some so-called evangelical leaders – and find the very word “evangelical” to be an embarrassment and stumbling-block in their countries.
Cf. the challenge of the Cape Town Commitment.
Calling the Church of Christ
Back to Humility, Integrity and Simplicity
The people of God either walk in the way of the Lord, or walk in the ways of other gods. The Bible shows that God’s greatest problem is not just with the nations of the world, but with the people he has created and called to be the means of blessing the nations. And the biggest obstacle to fulfilling that mission is idolatry among God’s own people. For if we are called to bring the nations to worship the only true and living God, we fail miserably if we ourselves are running after the false gods of the people around us.
When there is no distinction in conduct between Christians and non-Christians - for example in the practice of corruption and greed, or sexual promiscuity, or rate of divorce, or relapse to pre-Christian religious practice, or attitudes towards people of other races, or consumerist lifestyles, or social prejudice - then the world is right to wonder if our Christianity makes any difference at all. Our message carries no authenticity to a watching world.
- We challenge one another, as God’s people in every culture, to face up to the extent to which, consciously or unconsciously, we are caught up in the idolatries of our surrounding culture. We pray for prophetic discernment to identify and expose such false gods and their presence within the Church itself, and for the courage to repent and renounce them in the name and authority of Jesus as Lord.
- Since there is no biblical mission without biblical living, we urgently re-commit ourselves, and challenge all those who profess the name of Christ, to live in radical distinctiveness from the ways of the world, to ‘put on the new humanity, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.’
- We must be Gospel people - committed to the mission of God
Followers of Jesus are on mission, as he was. He was sent, and so are we. “As the Father sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” Discipleship is, therefore, by definition, missional. We are all included in the mandate of the so-called Great Commission.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Note, it is an affirmation before it is a command. It all flows from the truth of the universal Lordship of Christ over all creation. Jesus claims the Yahweh position - God of all creation.
So our mission is to the ends of the earth and to the end of the world - for all time and space on this planet. And for all disciples - all followers of Jesus are mandated to obey this self-replicating instruction.
The Anglican Communion (aware that I am speaking in an Anglican church, and in the context of the Anglican Leadership Institute) produced in 1984 a remarkably comprehensive statement of what has come to be called, “The Five Marks of Mission” - all are directly or indirectly connected to the Great Commission, in an integrated biblical understanding of our mission in the world as followers of the Jesus who is Lord of creation and history. Here they are:
- Evangelism: “To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God”
- Teaching: “To teach, baptise and nurture new believers”
- Compassion: “To respond to human need by loving service”
- Justice: “To seek to transform the unjust structures of society”
- Creation-care: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”
We have no time to expound all of these, but all of them can be seen to be deeply rooted in the Bible. The church to which I belong, All Souls Church, Langham Place, uses all “five marks of mission” as a template for the whole range of its mission service and support, at home and abroad.
My point is: even in the midst of political change and chaos, our mission goes on! Christ gave his command to a tiny group of his followers in the midst of the overwhelming power and hostility of both religious and secular authorities - yet they went out into the world that proclaimed “Caesar is Lord”, and countered that claim with the affirmation, “Jesus is Lord! And we are here bring that to you as Good News and call you to repentance, faith and obedience, to a new kind of kingdom, a very different story and a much better destiny.” Ours is still the same task, in a world not greatly different from theirs.
“Missional church” - the familiar phrase is not just a slogan, or a fad, or a sub-set of evangelical culture - but a simple reality - it’s what the church is(or it is not church).
- We must be praying people – appealing to the throne of God
Followers of Jesus must be people of prayer, as he was - so much so that his first followers asked him to teach them to pray as he did (they already were a praying people, from the habits of home and synagogue).
So he taught them the “Lord’s Prayer” - which we blithely repeat with little thought about its challenging political significance.
It acknowledges that “there is a higher throne” - the God of Heaven, as Daniel called him – the one who is the “Ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). Prayer is, in itself, a political act, for it appeals to the authority that is higher than the state – whether emperor, king, or president, or supreme court. When you pray, you say to all of them, “There is Someone above all of you.”
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” - that is an astonishing prayer – that the rule of God and the will of God should operate on earth - not just ‘up in heaven’, or ‘eventually’. Do we understand it? And if we do, do we mean it? And if we mean it, do we act in relation to that prayer, in connection with our political opinions, options and decisions – as citizens and voters? Do we search the Scriptures to see what God’s kingdom means, or what God’s will is, in relation to social, economic and political life, and the realities of work, the marketplace, business, the law-courts, government etc.? (The Bible has plenty to say on all of these). And then - do we pray for those values – the values of God’s kingdom and God’s will to be upheld on earth, in our own nation and neighbourhood. If not, what’s the point of the prayer?
Prayer in the political realm is actually commanded by Paul.
1 Tim. 2:1-2.
“I urge then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for all people - for kings and all those in authority….”
All kinds of prayer for all kinds of rulers. And Paul did not mean Christian kings and emperors - there were none. He meant prayer for the pagan Roman rulers of his world.
I have been in many many church services all over the world and this must be one of the most disobeyed commands Paul ever issued. We get prayer for our needs, for blessings, for healing, for “peace”, etc. - but no specific prayer in relation to governing authorities (Anglican churches, I’m pleased to say, are an exception to this, for such prayer is built into our liturgy).
But what kind of prayer? Just “God bless them…” ? bland and lacking any precision or discernment?
I was recently struck by the first ten Psalms. There we find urgent, passionate, desperate, prayer to God in relation to the political realm and its evil. Praying that God would put down the wicked in power, and vindicate the oppressed. Those prayers speak of nations and peoples, - and proclaim that, if the LORD is king, then ultimately he must act in line with his own justice and put down the wicked from their high place and defend the cause of the oppressed (as Mary prayed in the Magnificat). Listen to the remarkable language of David’s prayer in Psalm 10.
Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
2 In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak,
who are caught in the schemes he devises.
3 He boasts about the cravings of his heart;
he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord.
4 In his pride the wicked man does not seek him;
in all his thoughts there is no room for God.
5 His ways are always prosperous;
your laws are rejected by him;
he sneers at all his enemies.
6 He says to himself, “Nothing will ever shake me.”
He swears, “No one will ever do me harm.”
7 His mouth is full of lies and threats;
trouble and evil are under his tongue.
12 Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
13 Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself,
“He won’t call me to account”?
14 But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked man;
call the evildoer to account for his wickedness
that would not otherwise be found out.
17 You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
18 defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that mere earthly mortals
will never again strike terror.
Do we have the courage to pray like that? Do we make use of the prayers in the political realm that God has actually given us in Scripture?
I see no contradiction in both praying for our rulers(they are human beings, in need of God’s love and mercy, and for God to bring them to repentance and salvation), and also praying against them - when their policies or actions are manifestly out of line with what the Bible teaches as God’s standards, values and priorities. For several years, back home, I prayed that God would humble our UK Prime Minister and Chancellor, especially in the days after the last election in 2015, when they spoke and acted with undisguised arrogance and smirking triumphalism, while continuing with policies that hurt the poor and favoured the rich. I still pray that God will bring them into meaningful confrontation with the gospel and to repentance and salvation. I pray for them, but I also pray against them, and I think the Bible authorizes both kinds of prayer.
I see this paradox and combination in Daniel, again. He clearly denounced the evil of the regime of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:27), yet he was almost certainly praying for Nebuchadnezzar (as Jeremiah 29:7 instructed), and tried to help him avoid God’s judgment. And in the midst of Daniel’s prayer life, he managed to cope with visions of the satanic, idolatrous, evil nature of the political power establishment that he lived in, with a willingness to go on living and serving the human beings themselves in the midst of it. He was a citizen of Zion, living in Babylon. He knew that Babylon stood under God’s wrath for its outrageous arrogance, violence and oppression, yet he continued to work, serve and pray, within it - not with naïve admiration, but with godly integrity and prayer. Followers of Jesus need to be people of prayer, with that kind of discernment and spiritual insight in the midst of the political realm.
I’ve said enough. Let me finish with two “poems” (of sorts).
I don’t know what you think of Leonard Cohen, the Jewish Canadian poet and singer. He died the day after the US presidential election result. In 1991 he wrote a poem / song called “The Future” (in an album by that name). It was in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Empire – responding to the uncertainty, confusion and chaotic mixture of hopes and fears that followed - 25 years ago now. It is a brutal, shocking kind of song, full of abrasive cultural allusion and comment. But in some ways it is also piercingly prophetic of where we seem to have arrived now. Here’s the repeated refrain:
Things are gonna slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothin’, nothin’ you can measure any more.
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
And it’s overcome the order of the soul.
When they said “REPENT! REPENT!”
I wonder what they meant…
What indeed can repentance mean in a world of post-truth, fake news, contradictions and denials, and denials of denials, of utter confusion of morals, and the boasting approval of things we once deplored? What can repentance mean when sexual predation is a perk of celebrity, when mockery and insult are the stock-in-trade of political discourse, when greed is good and pride is smart. Repent? I wonder what they meant.
And yet, even in such a world, we are still called to be the followers of the crucified Lord, and to lift up his cross and bear witness to him and the Good News of all he taught, modelled, and accomplished. And we are to lift up that cross precisely in this world of evil, folly and confusion. For it was in such a world, and for such a world, that Jesus died and rose again, and calls us to follow him.
So let me finish with a better “poem” - or at least short reflection, by George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community in Scotland.
I simply argue that the cross be raised again
At the centre of the market place
As well as on the steeple of the church.
I am recovering the claim that
Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles
But on a cross between two thieves;
On a town garbage heap;
At a crossroads of politics so cosmopolitan
That they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek,
And at the kind of place where
Cynics talk smut,
And thieves curse,
And soldiers gamble.
Because that is where He died,
And that is what he died about,
And that is where Christ’s men ought to be,
And what church people ought to be about.
Humility, Integrity, and Simplicity
CHRISTOPHER J.H. WRIGHT
LANGHAM PARTNERSHIP, CHARLESTON, SC
It is an honor and joy to be invited to participate in this tribute to Jonathan and Jean Bonk. It has been a personal privilege to be counted among their many, many friends around the world, especially in the global mission community. I got to know them best through many years of annual visits to the Overseas Ministries Study Center, where they were unfailing in the hospitality extended to me, not only while teaching there, but also when I used it as a home away from home for periods of writing. So it was a particular pleasure for me when Jonathan agreed to be a member of the Lausanne Theology Working Group in the years preceding the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, 2010. He contributed to several consultations at which we examined the depths of meaning—biblical, theological, and missional—in the Lausanne slogan “The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.” In that way, he contributed indirectly also to the congress itself and to the missiological thinking that eventually found succinct expression in the statement emerging from that congress, the Cape Town Commitment.
Many of us, including Jonathan, were concerned beforehand that the Cape Town Congress should not be merely a time either of celebrating the forward march of evangelical mission endeavors in the past decades or of compiling statistics, strategies, and plans for great efforts in the future. Doubtless celebrating and planning have their place. But we feared that God might not be as pleased with the state of world evangelicalism as we might be tempted to be pleased with ourselves. We lamented the prevalence of abuses perpetrated in the name of Christ—such as extreme forms of prosperity teachings and the unchristlike lives and behavior of some celebrity leaders. We were suspicious that some of the vaunted statistics of church growth, also the funds that they could generate for all kinds of “ministries,” were essentially “cooked”—unverified and lacking in integrity. We deplored the distorting influence of money and power in relationships between churches and mission agencies across the North-South divide. In short, we were convinced that Cape Town must include an element of self-examination and repentance if it was to be true to the claimed biblical foundations of the evangelical missions community it was bringing together.
This concern was accepted by the leadership of the Lausanne Movement in their planning of the congress program, and one of the six congress themes was defined as “Integrity: Calling the Church of Christ back to Humility, Integrity, and Simplicity.” I was invited to give the plenary address with that title. Knowing that those three words will echo warmly in the hearts of Jonathan and Jean, and that indeed they resonate with their Mennonite roots and personal characters, I offer below an edited and expanded version of what I said on that occasion.
God’s Mission and Ours
Some 4,000 years ago, God launched his global mission with the first Great Commission, given to Abraham, telling him to “Go . . . be a blessing . . . and through you all nations on the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:1–3).That is my own translation. It could be indicated as such. Other quotes will normally be from NIV, unless otherwise indicated. That is God’s great mission. That, says Paul in Galatians 3:8–9, is the Gospel that the Scriptures announced in advance to Abraham—that God chooses to bless all the nations on earth! In the world of “bad news” in Genesis 3–11, that is very good news indeed.
How would that happen? God’s plan was that it should happen by God’s first creating a people, his own people, a people chosen in Abraham, redeemed through Christ, and called to “walk in the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice,” so that God could keep his promise to Abraham and bless all nations through him (Gen. 18:19, my own translation). The whole purpose of election is ethical and missional. That is, our very existence as God’s people is founded on God’s intention to bless all peoples. The mission of the church flows from the mission of God. And God’s mission fills the whole of the rest of the Bible. The Cape Town Commitment summarizes both sides of the matter, with abundant biblical echoes:
We are committed to world mission, because it is central to our understanding of God, the Bible, the Church, human history and the ultimate future. The whole Bible reveals the mission of God to bring all things in heaven and earth into unity under Christ, reconciling them through the blood of his cross. In fulfilling his mission, God will transform the creation broken by sin and evil into the new creation in which there is no more sin or curse. God will fulfil his promise to Abraham to bless all nations on the earth, through the gospel of Jesus, the Messiah, the seed of Abraham. God will transform the fractured world of nations that are scattered under the judgment of God into the new humanity that will be redeemed by the blood of Christ from every tribe, nation, tongue and language, and will be gathered to worship our God and Savior. God will destroy the reign of death, corruption and violence when Christ returns to establish his eternal reign of life, justice and peace. Then God, Immanuel, will dwell with us, and the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever.
God calls his people to share his mission. The Church from all nations stands in continuity through the Messiah Jesus with God’s people in the Old Testament. With them we have been called through Abraham and commissioned to be a blessing and a light to the nations. With them, we are to be shaped and taught through the law and the prophets to be a community of holiness, compassion and justice in a world of sin and suffering. We have been redeemed through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to what God has done in Christ. The Church exists to worship and glorify God for all eternity and to participate in the transforming mission of God within history. Our mission is wholly derived from God’s mission, addresses the whole of God’s creation, and is grounded at its centre in the redeeming victory of the cross. This is the people to whom we belong, whose faith we confess and whose mission we share.
Obstacles to God’s Mission
But there were, and still are, many things that keep frustrating and hindering that great loving, saving mission of God. Which might we consider to be the greatest of those obstacles to God’s desire for the evangelization of the world?
I would suggest that it is not primarily:
• other religions. In truth, they are a major challenge, but the Lord knows those who seek him and reveals himself through Christ in surprising ways.
• persecution. Persecution is a terrible enemy, but sometimes it purifies and strengthens God’s people.
• resistant cultures. God has not left himself without a witness anywhere.
All these things and many more are indeed major challenges. But the overwhelming witness of the Bible itself is that the greatest problem for God in his redemptive mission for the world is God’s own people. What hurts God most, it seems, is not the sin of the world but the failure, disobedience, and rebellion of those whom God has redeemed and called to be his people, his holy, distinctive people.
In the Old Testament, the vast bulk of the words of the prophets were addressed to God’s own people—Israel—and only comparatively few chapters to “oracles against the nations.” By contrast, we tend to spend all our time attacking and complaining about the world and ignoring our own failures.
God’s calling on Old Testament Israel was very clear, as it is for us:
• God called Israel to be “a light to the nations.” But according to Ezekiel (5:6; 16:44–52), Israel sank even lower than the nations, including Sodom and Gomorrah. They were hardly a shining light in that condition!
• God called Israel to know him, to love and worship him alone, as the one true living God. But they constantly went after other gods, falling into repeated idolatry. This was a tragic squandering of the greatest privilege and blessing they had—the fact that they were God’s redeemed, covenant people, chosen for the sake of bringing God’s blessing to the rest of the nations. Israel itself was denying and hindering the very mission for which it existed.
The Bible gives us warrant for regarding idolatry as the biggest single obstacle to world mission. God’s mission is to bring all peoples into the blessing of knowing, loving, and worshipping him alone as the one true living God, the Creator and Redeemer of all. That being so, then the greatest threat to that goal is the worship of other gods, false gods, no gods. But the problem, as we see in the Old Testament very clearly, is not just the ignorant idolatry of the foreign nations and their false gods, but rather the idolatry that is rampant among God’s own people. When those to whom God has revealed himself, those whom God has redeemed and bound to himself in covenant relationship—when those people refuse to acknowledge God and “run after other gods,” as the Old Testament puts it, what hope is there for any faithful, life-giving witness among the peoples who do not yet know God in that way?
There are many false gods and idols in the contemporary world that can entice Christian people away from worshipping and serving the living God alone. Three in particular seem especially seductive, just as much for evangelical Christians today as for Israel of old: the idol of power and pride, the idol of popularity and success, and the idol of wealth and greed. The prophets, Jesus, and the apostles all challenge us with powerful, prophetic condemnation of these three destructive idols that can pollute and pervert the mission of God’s people.
The idol of power and pride. It is very easy for people in leadership positions—including those in Christian leadership, in churches, organizations, or mission agencies—to exalt their own status and authority. They grow proud of their position, refuse to submit to the wisdom of accountability, and become impervious to criticism or rebuke.
Isaiah warns that such people face the humbling power of God. “The Lord Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled). . . . The arrogance of man will be brought low and human pride humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, . . . and the idols will totally disappear” (2:12–18).
Jesus observes that such pride in one’s status and power is characteristic of the way authority is exercised in the fallen, pagan world. But he explicitly told his disciples that it should not be so among them. “Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. . . . I am among you as one who serves’” (Luke 22:24–27). Tragically, many Christian leaders behave as if Jesus had commended, rather than condemned, the leadership style of the world. Some even make a virtue out of mimicking it.
When the apostle Paul talks about the life that is worthy of our calling in the Gospel, the very first thing he says is this: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). And when the apostle Peter speaks to the elders of the churches he is writing to, he urges them to be “shepherds of God’s flock . . . not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2–3).
These are just some of the strong biblical warnings against the sin of pride. It is destructive, divisive, and detrimental to effective mission. To be obsessed with our own status in Christian work is sheer disobedience to Christ and the Bible. It destroys the very thing we are trying to accomplish.
We are called back in repentance to humility—the humility of Jesus Christ himself, who said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29).
The idol of popularity and success. This idol is close to that of pride, but it particularly manifests itself in obsession with our own performance and the image we can build on the basis of that. We are anxious to prove how well we are doing. We crave good results and impressive statistics. We like the shining lights of being noticed, commended, applauded, and deemed a success. Again, sadly, the same temptations are rife in Christian ministry. Of course, this craving for celebrity will be overlaid with a cosmetic layer of appropriately spiritual terminology—as when people are said to be “mightily used of the Lord,” or when success is called “fruit for the kingdom.” The cult of celebrity, which is such a feature of our idolatrous pagan culture, has infected the church in ways that are damaging to the celebrities themselves and to those who idolize them.
Obsession with these idols leads us into manipulation, dishonesty, distortion, and duplicity. Media hype is common in the secular world, but it amounts to sinful dishonesty when Christians indulge in it. Claims and statistics and stories and testimonies can all be polished and gilded to give the desired impression. Or worse, unverified and misleading statistics can be cited as a means of gaining funds. We tailor the message for whoever will pay for the cloth.
Such behavior is comparable to that of the false prophets in the Old Testament, who claimed to speak the word of God but were really acting in their own self-interest. They claimed to be men of God, but they were giving the people only whatever the people most wanted to hear or see at the time. They were popular and successful (like many today). The people listened to them eagerly, but they were false prophets in the grip of a false god.
Micah describes them thus: “As for the prophets who lead my people astray, they proclaim ‘peace’ if they have something to eat, but prepare to wage war against anyone who refuses to feed them.. . . . Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,, ‘Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us’” (Mic. 3:5, 11).
And Jeremiah agrees: “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush” (Jer. 6:13–15; see the even more direct criticism in Jer. 23:8–32 and Ezek. 13:1–16). There is no need to blush, they must have thought, like some celebrity leaders today, when you are popular and successful, when you have thousands of followers, when everything you touch turns “mega,” and you have a lifestyle to match. But with all of that, you can still be a false prophet.
Even in the early church, Paul warned against those who “peddle the word of God for profit,” those who “use deception” and “distort the word of God” (2 Cor. 2:17; 4:2). The church in Corinth was dazzled by these “super-apostles,” as he called them. They loved to boast about their credentials, their impressive speaking, their great popularity. They were the kind of leaders the church at Corinth wanted, because when a church has leaders like that, it can feel proud of its own image. Churches like to have popular, famous leaders so that they (the churches) can bask in the reflected glory of their big-name pastors. In that way, the idolatry of success and celebrity can become a vicious circle, a feedback loop of collusion between the self-glorifying ambition of the leader and the self-congratulating boasting of the people who follow him (and it usually is “him”).
Paul’s warning is severe: “Such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve” (2 Cor. 11:13–15).
The seductive power of this idol is very great. But when it generates deception, we must be on our guard. We cannot build the kingdom of the God of truth on foundations of dishonesty. Telling lies about our success or accepting what we know to be very questionable statistics in order to get, or to grant, funding for our projects is nothing short of bowing down to the idol of manipulated success. The pressures are sometimes very great. We can justify all kinds of questionable practices on the grounds of “doing God’s work.” But God’s work cannot be done by using the tools of Satan (that is, lies) to boost the statistics of our own success.
We are called back in repentance to integrity—the integrity of Jesus Christ, who is the Truth and calls us to speak nothing but the truth.
The Cape Town Commitment issued this call:
We call on all church and mission leaders to resist the temptation to be less than totally truthful in presenting our work. We are dishonest when we exaggerate our reports with unsubstantiated statistics, or twist the truth for the sake of gain. We pray for a cleansing wave of honesty and the end of such distortion, manipulation and exaggeration. We call on all who fund spiritual work not to make unrealistic demands for measurable and visible results, beyond the need for proper accountability. Let us strive for a culture of full integrity and transparency. We will choose to walk in the light and truth of God, for the Lord tests the heart and is pleased with integrity.
The idol of wealth and greed. The idolatry of greed infected the religious leaders of Israel too. Micah observed: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money” (Mic. 3:11). Isaiah saw a whole culture of greed, accumulation, and covetousness, which is reflected on an even vaster scale in today’s world: “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land” (Isa. 5:8).
Moses, who rejoiced in the expectation that God would provide abundantly for his people when they got into the Promised Land, also warned against the danger of surplus and surfeit: “When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deut. 8:12–14).
Jesus gave the same stern warning: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15, my translation). And neither, he could have added, does a person’s ministry. Yet it seems that some Christians actually rate great leaders and megapastors by how wealthy they are. How far we have strayed from the standards set by Jesus!
We are called back in repentance to simplicity—the simplicity of Jesus himself, and the spirit of generosity, which is the greatest antidote to accumulative greed.
The Temptations of Jesus
It is interesting to notice that Jesus himself faced the same three fundamental temptations.
• The devil offered him power and status over all nations, from a high mountain. Jesus refused it, choosing to worship God alone. Jesus chose the path of humility and obedience.
• The devil suggested he become a popular celebrity by manipulating the admiration of the crowds with a spectacular, death-defying miracle. Jesus recognized the way Satan was twisting Scripture to get him to achieve success. He chose the path of integrity in his trust in God.
• The devil dangled before him the lucrative prospect of abundant food for himself and the hungry masses. Turn stones into bread! Why, you could make a fortune for yourself with such a miracle! But Jesus resisted with the scriptural truth that God could supply bread, but human beings need greater food for life than that. He chose the path of simplicity in dependence on the promises of God.
So Jesus resisted these temptations to give in to the false gods—the idols that Satan easily inhabits. But tragically, it seems that so many Christian leaders (including mission leaders) blatantly fail these tests at precisely the points where Jesus overcame them. They cannot resist the temptations of elevated status, manipulated success, and selfish greed.
The whole church pays the cost of their failure, in the loss of integrity and credibility. What right have we to speak to the world when we are no different from it? Whenever we point a finger of prophetic criticism at the sin of the world, the world tells us, bluntly and rightly, “Clean up your own back yard!” When the church falls into the ways of the world (as the Old Testament again so effectively puts it, “going after the gods of the peoples around you”), then the church itself becomes a scandal, a stumbling block to the mission of God.
The Need for Reformation
In the pre-Reformation church of medieval Europe, we see these same three idols—pride, popularity, and greed—masquerading in the corrupt ecclesiastical system. There were proud and powerful bishops, wielding enormous wealth and political influence. There were highly popular and successful cults of saints and shrines, making all kinds of fraudulent claims about their relics and miracles to manipulate the masses. There were people making enormous wealth from selling indulgences—exploiting the poor with promises of good things in the life to come.
Meanwhile, the ordinary people lived in ignorance of the Bible, which was neither available in their language nor preached from their pulpits. Reformation was the desperate need of the hour. Surely the same desperate need is with us again, five hundred years later. And, I dare to propose, such reformation needs to begin in the worldwide evangelical community. For there are some parts of the so-called evangelical church today where the same three idols are rampant.
• There are self-appointed super-apostles and other mighty and elevated leaders, unaccountable to anybody, popular with thousands of followers, exploiting the flock of Christ, unconcerned for the weak and poor, showing none of the marks of an apostle as described by Paul, and with no resemblance to the crucified Christ. That is nothing less than the idolatry of pride and power.
• There is a craze for “success,” for “results,” to win the largest number in the shortest time. There is obsession with statistics and outcomes, leading to wild claims, unsubstantiated numbers, untrue reports—blatant manipulation and collusion in falsehood, all for the sake of funding, ministry success, and growth. That is the idolatry of success.
• There is the so-called prosperity gospel. Now we should certainly affirm what the Bible says about God’s blessing (including material blessings), about the miraculous power of God’s Spirit and the victory of God over all that crushes and curses human life. But many promoters of this teaching distort the Bible (if they use it at all). They appeal to human greed or exploit human need. They have no place for the Bible’s teaching on repentance, on suffering, and on taking up the cross. They succeed only in enriching themselves and indulging in a consumerist, wealth-flaunting lifestyle that is utterly contrary to the teaching and example of Christ. This is surely the idolatry of greed.
Meanwhile, as in the pre-Reformation church so also today, the ordinary people of God in many churches around the world live in ignorance of the Bible. They have pastors who neither know the Bible themselves nor have the willingness or ability to preach and teach it clearly and faithfully. Reformation, a twenty-first-century reformation, is once again the desperate need. And it needs to start with us.
How, then, should we respond? It seems to me that we need a renewal of Christlike leadership, and we need a return to the Lord himself.
A Renewal of Christlike Leadership
Once again the Cape Town Commitment identifies one dimension of the problem.
The rapid growth of the Church in so many places remains shallow and vulnerable, partly because of the lack of discipled leaders, and partly because so many use their positions for worldly power, arrogant status or personal enrichment. As a result, God’s people suffer, Christ is dishonored, and gospel mission is undermined. “Leadership training” is the commonly-proposed priority solution. Indeed, leadership training programmes of all kinds have multiplied, but the problem remains, for two probable reasons.
First, training leaders to be godly and Christlike is the wrong way round. Biblically, only those whose lives already display basic qualities of mature discipleship should be appointed to leadership in the first place. If, today, we are faced with many people in leadership who have scarcely been discipled, then there is no option but to include such basic discipling in their leadership training. Arguably the scale of unChristlike and worldly leadership in the global Church today is glaring evidence of generations of reductionist evangelism, neglected discipling and shallow growth. The answer to leadership failure is not just more leadership training but better discipleship training. Leaders must first be disciples of Christ himself, the good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep.
Second, some leadership training programmes focus on packaged knowledge, techniques and skills to the neglect of godly character. By contrast, authentic Christian leaders must be like Christ in having a servant heart, humility, integrity, purity, lack of greed, prayerfulness, dependence on God’s Spirit, and a deep love for people.
Furthermore, some leadership training programmes lack specific training in the one key skill that Paul includes in his list of qualifications—ability to teach God’s Word to God’s people. Yet Bible teaching is the paramount means of disciple-making and the most serious deficiency in contemporary Church leaders.
A Radical Return to the Lord
We need to take heed to the prophetic word from the prophets and apostles of God, and from the Lord Jesus Christ himself: “Repent, and believe the gospel.” Jesus preached that message and delivered that command, not to pagan unbelievers, Gentile outsiders, people of other faiths, but to those who already claimed to be God’s covenant people. The command to repent comes first to the people of God—in both the Old and the New Testaments.
If we believe in going out to the world in mission, we must first come back to the Lord ourselves. If we want to see change in the world through the Gospel, we must first change our own hearts and our ways (Jer. 7:3–8). If we wish to see the revelation of the living God challenging the false gods of all human cultures and religions, then we must first renounce and repent of the false gods among ourselves in the Christian church.
The call to mission is not only a call that sends us out to make disciples. It also calls us back to the core characteristics of being disciples ourselves, in humility, integrity, and simplicity.
The Lord of History
THE ANGLICAN LEADERSHIP INSTITUTE
THE REV. DAVID BOOMAN, ASSISTANT RECTOR FOR PASTORAL CARE AND HEALING PRAYER MINISTRY, ST. MICHAEL'S CHURCH, CHARLESTON, SC
The Christian God is a God of history. He is the God who makes history, and he is the God who redeems history, weaving together the threads of sin and suffering into a tapestry of glory. During my month at the Anglican Leadership Institute, this sense of historicity became increasingly real.
For one thing, the locale of our gathering was saturated with history. Two hundred years ago, Sullivan's Island was a place where thousands of slaves, recently captured in Africa, were quarantined before they were sold in the Charleston market. And yet today, we find a bruised and buffeted North American Anglicanism reaching out to Africa for strength and succor. Indeed the fact that 10 of the 14 ALI participants were from Africa (and included 5 bishops) was not an accident. Our Lord's sovereign ways within history are precise and prophetic. As is often noted, humanly speaking, Africa is the hope of the Anglican Communion. And so how beautiful it is that from soil once stained with global exploitation and terror, the seeds of global renewal are emerging. And of course from a historic perspective we are also reminded of an even more distant age when British theologian Pelagius nearly destroyed the church, only to have the great African Augustine save the day by steering Christ's body through stormy doctrinal seas.
And certainly, God's sovereign grace in history is not only of a global or national character, but is also expressed in the personal lives of individual people. We were reminded of this every morning during ALI, as clergy from around the diocese joined us to lead Morning Prayer and to share from their personal lives and ministries. I was amazed to hear how the Lord called the Rev. Greg Snyder from tending moon to rocks to shepherding everlasting souls. And I was moved by the Rev. Gary Beeson's inspiring journey from business success to the faith-building adventures of church planning.
Flowing directly from corporate worship and the sharing of testimonies, every morning we were blessed to have Peter Moore lead us through character studies of the spiritual giants of our faith. Having had the honor of serving with Peter at St. Michael's for the 3 years preceding the launch of ALI, I didn't think he could surprise me any more (you may have heard the apocryphal saying that when the engineers of Google were designing their search engine, they used Peter Moore's brain as the model). However, Peter's lively treatment of these heroes (from Tertullian to C.S. Lewis) was simply breathtaking. One of the most poignant moments of the month was when Peter, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, and others shared personal stories from the life of the legendary John Stott.
While serious engagement with history is often inspiring and edifying, it frequently has a sobering dimension as well. This held true in our 2nd and 3rd weeks when we were joined by Dr. Allen Ross and Dr. Paul Marshall.
For a gathering of global clergy, Dr. Ross appropriately directed us back to the OT book of Malachi, where the prophet addresses the clergy (priests) of the nation of Israel. One of Malachi's consistent refrains is that the priests have failed to lead God's people in true worship and judgement is nigh. Sadly, the priests are no longer offering the Lord the 'first' and the 'best' of all they have, but have lapsed into a formalist routine which is a stench in the Lord's nostrils. God's emerging words of warning to these priests is a timeless call to the clergy everywhere to preach the true Word, to fervently intercede for one's people, and to be always lifting up the atoning sacrifice.
Subsequently, Dr. Marshall led us through a sometimes harrowing account of religious persecution around the world. Given out current geopolitical climate, much of our attention was given to Islam and its history. I was surprised again by this sometimes underreported narrative. In brief, within 40 years of Mohammed's death, Islamic conquest encompassed thousands of square miles. Within 100 years of Mohammed's death, Islam was in France, India, and China. At its geopolitical height, Islamic powers controlled nearly 10,000,000 square miles of the globe, from Poland, to Mozambique, to China, to Indonesia, including almost half of Europe. Remarkably, Islamic nations were even making slave raids into the British isles and Iceland in the 17th century. indeed, were it not for the victory of Charles Martel at the battle of Tours in 732 and for John Sobieski's victory at the battle of Vienna in 1683, all of Europe might well have become Muslim. Ultimately then, as leaders facing a new and explosive face of Islam in the 21st century, the week with Dr. Marshall was a clarion call to heed the lessons of history and to lead our people in prevailing prayer and strategic cultural engagement.
Our 4th week was spent under the instruction of Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who deftly led us on a journey through Anglican history and its impact on the world - not only within the confines of global ecclesiology, but even upon the more expansive canvas of Western civilization itself. Bishop Nazir-Ali showed us how theological insights led to such tectonic developments the Magna Carta, common law, etc. and urged us to pursue deep fellowship and missional engagement in the world. The church will not be renewed by institutions said Bishop Nazir-Ali, but by mission and by voluntary movements of people. From desert monks to the Franciscans to the missionary societies, to the East African revival, to the Nash camps, it has always been this way. it is my hope and prayer that the ALI experiment will become another such movement of renewal.
On this note of mission and renewal, let me close by offering that as much as ALI was characterized by teaching of an extraordinary caliber (and I've only mentioned a fraction of the speakers who graciously gave us their time), yet I am convinced that the intellectual instruction will ultimately prove to be only half of the story. I suspect that the lasting fruit of this experiment will be seen flowing from the relationships formed in the classroom, yes; but also from fellowship around the fireplace, the dinner table, and even the basketball court.
For is it not true that in moments of great consequence, when the stakes are at their highest, much often depends - irreducibly - on the level of trust shared by the parties involved? Thus it would not surprise me if many years from now, as our great Communion continues to navigate decision points of high intensity and peril, we may see the simple bonds of love and affection forged on Sullivan's prove to have a decisive influence on the course of our Communion. indeed, one cannot but hope that such precious deposits of trust may even open us to missional seas we have not sailed before. For Jesus' sake, may it be so!
To have been part of such a historical undertaking has been a humbling joy. Thank you to the countless people who made this gathering possible (see our SC Statement for a more complete expression of gratitude). And may the Lord of history continue to be glorified through the Anglican Leadership Institute.
The Nature and Future of the Anglican Communuion
Anglican Leadership Institute
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali
It is a great privilege indeed to be part of this miracle of the renewal of Anglican Christians through the Global South, GAFCON and other orthodox movements. It really is a miracle how many people have tried to prevent it but it has not been prevented because it is part of God's purposes for our Church. And it is about those purposes that I wish to speak- the nature and the future of the Anglican Communion. And indeed the one belongs to the other. The future of the Anglican Communion is to be found in its authentic nature - not recently invented innovations and explanations, but what actually belongs to the Church as we have always known it.
So let us first think about the Church and the churches. The New Testament speaks of the Church as you know in many different ways. There is the church of the household: of Prisca and Aquila, of Nympha, of Lydia- how many women there have you noticed? Of the church at Troas – again, the church of the household- and of course we know that the household in New Testament times was not the nuclear family of the West. It was rather like the family that many of us know - extended with servants and employees and all sorts of other hangers-on. The church of the household is very important in the New Testament. It is the church of those who are in some way like one another. It has to do with likeness or homogeneity.
But then of course there is another way in which the New Testament speaks of church, and that is of the church in a particular city or town - Ephesus, or Corinth, or Rome, or Antioch or Jerusalem. This is where people, who are different from one another, unlike one another, come together. So if you read the instruction about the supper of the Lord in 1 Corinthians 11, or indeed about the Christian assembly in James 2, it is about the rich and the poor, the old and the young and in 1 Peter 5 and in Galatians 3 men and the women, Jew and Gentile, all having come together and to get on with one another in service to the Lord. The church of the household, the church in a particular city or town, and then the church in an area or region. How much of the New Testament is addressed to the church in a particular area? Whether it's Galatia, or Asia, or the churches in Judea or Macedonia, wherever it may be. Finally, there's the worldwide Church of God which is described by St. Paul in the letter to the Galatians as 'Jerusalem our mother that is above' and in the letter to the Colossians and the Ephesians as the body of which Christ is the head. The worldwide Church from which, of course, all our churches derive, and to which we have to remain faithful and, of course, all our churches, also make up that worldwide church of God throughout the ages and everywhere in the world.
Now what, you say, has this to do with Anglicans? Well, at the Anglican Reformation the Church was expressed in two main ways: There was the parish church, which had a responsibility for everyone in the community. So the church was incarnate in every community with a ministry to every person and every home and then there was the idea of the national church. At that time Western Europe was coming to a sense of people being in nation states and so it was natural that the life of the church should also be expressed in that way, as a national church. What about the church of the household? Well, perhaps it survived in the family- family prayers, being Christian in the family, passing on the faith, that sort of thing. And Callum Brown has rightly said, I think, that the demise of Christianity as a public religion in Britain dates from the time when it ceased to be passed on in the family, from the parents. Don't blame anyone else. Of course, the national church reflects to some extent the provincial idea already found in germ in the New Testament in the churches addressed in a particular region, but so much promoted by the churches of Africa, by Cyprian himself in his relationship with Rome and the other churches.
The idea of the Church as being a universal reality certainly suffered at the Reformation. We have to be frank about this and to admit it. But it survived in three main ways. Firstly, it survived in the appeal to Scripture. That is to say, every church to determine its authenticity needs to appeal to Scripture as the final authority. Secondly, it survived in the universal appeal to antiquity; that the Church of England was not doing anything new but was simply continuing with the ancient church of the fathers and the councils. And thirdly, of course, it survived in the hope of a general council which might gather together to settle differences among Christians (we mustn’t forget that there were Protestants at the Council of Trent, even if the differences could not be reconciled at the time).
We are facing a changing situation where people wanting to be ‘church’ with those who are like them. We find this in Africa, with people wanting to be church in the context of their own tribes. We find it in Asia, and now we find it with the affinity model churches, the network churches for instance, or the virtual churches in the Northern Hemisphere. And that will no doubt spread to the south as well. I used to be quite hostile to people wanting to be church with others who are like them because it could encourage caste based churches -it could encourage people from one religious background who become Christians to want to stick with one another. But having looked at the church of the household and the idea that it is possible for people who are like one another to be church has led me to modify my views a little. And I now feel that it is permissible for people to be churches in this sort of way, networked in terms of their profession or their leisure or where they live or whatever else you can think of - their expertise in IT, for instance.
But there is one condition, and that is this cannot be the only way of being church. If you want to be church with those who are like you then you also have to be church with those who are unlike you. You have to maintain that tension which is found in the New Testament between the church of the household and the church set in the wider community. The emergence under God of the Anglican Communion as a fellowship of churches has raised again for us now, in a very sharp way, the question of universality. How do we make the universal church an effective fellowship of believers and of churches? And as you know, historically the various instruments have developed to do this -the Lambeth Conference, the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates' Meeting, and the Anglican Consultative Council. But in the crisis that is facing us at this time we have found these not to be enough because, in the end, they were based on English good manners of restraint and mutual consultation. And we have found that in our world, English good manners are simply not enough. So, we have to find another way while, of course, respecting the need for good manners. I will come back to that in a moment.
So, the Church and the churches, if you would like to keep that in your mind, and then secondly, communication and culture. Professor Lamin Sanneh is perhaps the greatest authority on the relationship between the communication of the gospel and culture in our generation. His work on the translatability of the gospel, work that he did first, in reflecting on the translation of the Bible into African languages and the impact that translation had had on African societies, an impact which those who actually did the translation could not have foreseen. But he has pointed out that the question about translatability is not just about the translation of the Bible into different languages, valuable as that is, but it has to do with the nature of the Christian faith itself. That is to say that the good news of Jesus Christ is intrinsically translatable from one culture to another. And he points out that even the fact that the New Testament was first written in Greek and not in the Aramaic or the Hebrew of Jesus' time is itself a fact of translation. You begin with translation. As you know, that it was not for another 100 years or so that the New Testament was translated back into Syriac or Aramaic. This is in contrast, of course, compared with say another worldwide religion like Islam. Islam is also universal, of course -you'll find it in many different parts of the world. But wherever you go, and whatever the local manifestations there is a certain ‘Arabicness’ about the Qur’ān, about the prayer, about the call to prayer, which cannot be translated. But the gospel can be, and has been throughout the ages.
Pope Benedict in his very important address at Regensburg which, of course, drew attention because of what he had said about the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Also in this lecture however, he addressed the question of the relationship between Gospel and culture, perhaps a more important aspect of the lecture. In this lecture, Pope Benedict tells us that there was a providential encounter between the Gospel and Hellenistic culture which provided the Church with the vocabulary to engage with the Hellenistic world. And he refers to the vision that St Paul received of people calling him to Macedonia, of the vocation to Europe therefore as one aspect of this providential encounter. I doubt personally whether Acts 16 will bear the sort of weight that he puts on it. But we can agree that the encounter was providential, and at the same time, there were many other encounters going on.
I have for long been interested in the story of the church in the Persian Empire, the other great superpower to Rome at that time. It's a very similar history. Armenia was the first country, the first nation, to call itself Christian. Ethiopia became a huge Christian empire at about the time of the rise of Islam. And no one can accuse the Ethiopian church of Hellenism! So, there have been all these providential encounters and we thank God for them and we have to ask what lessons we can learn from them for ourselves today. When we consider the Anglican situation, the translation of the Bible by William Tyndale into English is a landmark not only in the story of the English church but of the English nation and of the English language. It is impossible to think of a Shakespeare or a Milton or a Donne without a Tyndale. And the translation, the rendering into the vernacular of the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, of worship in a language understood by the people is all part of this process of translation. This is wealth that we cannot easily give up-translatability belongs to the very nature of Anglicanism.
In the preface to the Book of Common Prayer, and the Articles of Religion, it is said that every church has a responsibility to render the Good News in terms of its culture. There is, of course, a downside to this, and that is that it is possible for the Gospel to become so identified with a particular culture that it becomes captive to it. And Anglicanism has been exposed to this danger of capitulation to culture from the very beginning. And wherever we are, in whatever culture we find ourselves, we must be aware of this danger of captivity and capitulation. The other thing, of course, to note is while our foundational documents may speak of relating the gospel to culture; in fact we have often failed to do so. And so Anglican Christian churches have not been able to look African or Asian or South American in the way that they should.
That brings me then to the question of constancy and change. What is it in this situation of flux that must remain constant? It is to my mind the passing on and the receiving and the passing on again of the apostolic teaching. That is how the Church lives, that is how the Church derives its strength and that is how the Church grows. Now of course in every culture, in every age, people notice things in that apostolic teaching which others have not noticed or which we have forgotten, or neglected, and so this or that aspect of the apostolic teaching can be recovered. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that slaves in America rediscovered the liberation trajectory in the Bible or that women are today rediscovering what the Bible says about the proper role for woman in the Church and in the world. For many years, I worked with the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority as Chair of its Ethics and Law Committee. This brought me into contact with a body of new knowledge that I had to make sense of. It is also true then that the Church is faced with new knowledge and how do we relate the unchanging apostolic teaching to new knowledge? We now know far more about the early embryo, for instance, than people did 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, and so we must have a healthy view of relating this apostolic teaching to change; there must be the possibility of development in terms of our doctrine. However, what I would want to say is that this development has to be principled. As John Henry Newman pointed out in his thinking on this issue any development of this kind must have a conservative action on the past. It must conserve the vigour of the gospel, it must represent a continuity of principles, and it must provide a basis for change that is not simply laxity and 'giving in'.
When any question arises as to whether something is an authentic expression of the apostolic teaching or not in such changing circumstances then we have to test it against the Bible, because the Bible is the norm by which we appreciate what is authentically apostolic. That is the reason for the Bible being the ultimate final authority for us in our faith and our life and this is, of course, the reason Anglicans have taken the study of the Bible so seriously.
You study something because you regard it as important, not because you regard it as unimportant. In the study, again, there are a number of aspects to it, to which I want to draw your attention. The first is the study of what lies behind the text. Why was a particular text put together? What were the purposes of those who were writing it? What were the oral traditions that lay behind it? We are all used to studying the Bible in that way. What is behind the text, what is in the text, a careful study of the grammar, of the literary value of the books of the Bible, and then of course what is in front of the text. How we relate the Bible to our circumstances, our culture, our context, our situation. This process of inculturation must go on of course, but there are two important things to be said about it.
First of all, there are limits to this process. They can't just take place anyhow. And the limits have to do first of all with the nature of the Gospel itself. Whatever the process of inculturation does or does not do, it cannot compromise how God has revealed his purposes to us, how Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, what he has done, who he is -all of that cannot be obscured by the process of inculturation.
Secondly, the process should not in any way impair the fellowship that there is between Christians. So our inculturation cannot be such that we fail to recognize the authentic Gospel in our church, and vice versa. We can talk about inculturation also in terms of rendering the mind of Christ or the mind of the Scriptures in terms of a particular culture or people, to make something intelligible to people, inspiring for them, authoritative for them, so that they may live their lives by it.
And so we come to the question of how fellowship is maintained; how it is enhanced and not impaired, and to the question of communion and conflict. Unity is a very precious thing indeed. What a good and joyful thing it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity, the Bible tells us. And we must seek to maintain that unity and that peace which builds unity. And there must be unity in diversity. We are not all the same. We are all different. You remember the story about the great Archbishop of Cape Town, who was a single man and very shy, who was asked to address the Mothers' Union. So when he got up to speak he wanted to put the Mothers' Union at ease- and also himself, he said, 'Ladies, I would like you to know that beneath this cassock you and I are exactly the same!'
But it's not like that, is it? We are all different, and this unity is a unity in diversity. It has to be - and this is something that is a matter for discussion - it has to be legitimate diversity, not just any kind of diversity. I asked John Stott once, ‘you told us many years ago to stay in the Anglican Church because it is comprehensive. What do you say now?’ And he said ‘I've always believed in principled comprehensiveness’. And that is another good phrase, ‘principled comprehensiveness.’ William Reed Huntington, the American Episcopalian theologian - and yes there were some and I hope there are some still - distinguished between what he called the Anglican principle and what he called the Anglican system. Well, the Anglican system we're all aware of, spires and fluttering surplices and choirs singing and archdeacons, you might say, bishops! If that's the system, what's the principle? It is the responsibility and the privilege of the local church to be and become the catholic church in that place - every local church. But Huntington was a good enough ecumenist in his day in the 19th century, to know that the local church could not be the catholic church in its place without being in relationship with all the other local churches. He anticipated the World Council of Churches’ New Delhi Statement by about 100 years. How then is local church to be the catholic church in relationship with all other local churches so they can also be the catholic church in that place? That is the question.
Huntington, of course, attempted to answer this by developing what has now come to be called the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. That is to say there were at least four things that were necessary for us to recognise the church in one another - the supreme authority of the Scriptures, the Catholic Creeds, the Sacraments instituted by Christ himself, and the historic Ministry of the church. And that Quadrilateral has been hugely important in Anglican discussion with other Christians. Many of the plans for church union, not least in India, Pakistan, and Ceylon, as it was then, could not have been conceived without the Quadrilateral playing a major part in this.
But apart from it being significant ecumenically, it was also good shorthand for Anglican identity. Anglicans have tended to say when people ask "what are you about?" and that's quite often a justifiable question - they've said this is what we're about - the Quadrilateral. But again the Quadrilateral has not proved enough in our circumstances. I have spoken already about the instruments of communion, of the necessity of why they arose, and of their inadequacy now.
So what else do we need to do to make sure that we continue to live in communion and do not perpetuate conflict that is unnecessary in the church? I do believe there are some things that need attention. The first is that we have to be clear we are a confessing church. Some people have the mistaken idea that Anglicans can believe anything - or sometimes even that Anglicans believe nothing. I don't know which is more serious. We have to be clear that we are a confessing church articulating the Gospel in terms of our own tradition. Secondly, to be a confessing church effectively we need to be a conciliar church. That is to say we need to have councils at every level, including worldwide, that are authoritative. That can make decisions that stick. In the last few years I've been frustrated by decision after decision after decision that has not stuck, and we cannot have this for the future for a healthy church. And then thirdly, we need to be in our councils consistorial. That is to say the councils themselves or through their representatives need to exercise the authority of a teaching office. In particular circumstances, not every day, nor promiscuously, but in particular circumstances, the faith has to be articulated clearly for the sake of people's spiritual health and for the sake of mission.
Now there is both, of course, the need for continuity and the need to recognize context. Successive Lambeth conferences have said that the Anglican Church is willing to disappear in the cause of the greater unity of Christ's church, to make that sacrifice. And of course we should continue to affirm that. If it is necessary for the Anglican Communion to die so the Gospel may live then so be it. But before we jump to too many conclusions about this, we have also to acknowledge there are things in the Anglican tradition that we can offer as a service and as a gift to the worldwide church: the vernacular liturgy and its beauty, the way in which we think theologically, the way which the people are formed, the musical traditions of the church, the way in which catholic order has been expressed, particularly in an Anglican form. We would not like to lose these things, but to offer them to the wider church as indeed we have done ecumenically for the last 100 years or more.
But there is also the context. And whilst we value the continuity, we also have to be clear that the church and its life needs to be expressed effectively in a plural world, in a globalized world, where private deals cannot carry credibility indefinitely and where we have to be clear with our neighbours what Gospel is it that we have. People quickly rumble what we are trying to do, if we’re trying to deceive them with something that is not the Gospel of Christ. So continuity and a changing context have to be held together.
And then, finally, to the commission and the coming days. If we are about anything we should be about mission – the Great Commission and its continuing validity for the church. A journalist rang me up the other day and he said, 'Bishop, do you believe in witnessing to people of other faiths?' I said ‘Of course I do’. He said, ‘Does that include Muslims?’ And I said, ‘Of course it does’. And the headline the next day was ‘Bishop wants to convert Muslims’! Well fair enough though that’s not the only thing I want to do with Muslims, there is, for example, service and dialogue, but I have an obligation - I have an obligation to witness to all God has done in Jesus Christ for me, for you, for the world, even for Muslims – praise the Lord – and I am not apologetic about it.
The Great Commission has to be carried out in every context, and perhaps the greatest challenge we have is that of militant secularism, which is creating a double jeopardy for western cultures; that the West is losing the Christian discourse at the very time when it needs it most. Well, let us pray that we are able to recover our Christian nerve in the West, and to make sure that the Gospel is not lost. So that all that is of value, of positive value in Western culture which largely depends on its Judeo-Christian heritage that will serve as a way of enhancing, and as a way of prospering persons and communities and a way of renewing them once again.
But in every context mission remains important as we seek to serve people, as we are present with them, as we identify with them, as we challenge them, as we have dialogue with them, and as we seek to serve them. But this mission has to take place from within movements of renewal. One of the things we really need to be aware of is the over-institutionalising of the Church because it is that which has led to this present crisis. People are in love with the institution and the structures of the Church rather than the Lord himself.
There have been great moments in Christian history when there have been moments of renewal – the monastic movement – when the Church had become lax and corrupt and rich, the monks went out into the deserts of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia to purify and to renew the Church. What a great renewal that was! Pope Benedict said at Regensburg that important things in Christian history had happened in Europe except he said for some significant developments in the East. Well, one of them was monasticism. Which Athanasius, of course, when he came to exile in the West, brought with him -a significant development indeed! The great missionary societies: when the Church Mission Society (CMS), of which I was the General Secretary, was formed 200 years and more ago, it took the Archbishop of Canterbury two years to even reply to their letter asking for permission to be set up. But that did not prevent God's work, brothers and sisters. And CMS, under God’s providence, was responsible for so many who are upholding the faith within the Anglican Communion. Today also we seek such movements of renewal for the sake of mission and if the present unrest leads to a renewal of mission-mindedness in our churches then the pain and the sacrifices will have been worth it.
See further R. Campbell, The Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1994.
On all of this, see the discussion in The Church as Communion, Rome, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1992.
In Robert B. Eno, SS, Teaching Authority in the Early Church (Message of the Fathers of the Church) 14, Wilmington, Delaware, Michael Glazier, 1984, pp 84ff.
See further The Pasadena Consultation- Homogenous unit principle, Wheaton, IL, Lausanne Committee, 1978.
Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1989 and 2009.
Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, Vatican Library, 2006.
See William Young, Patriarch, Shah and Caliph, Rawalpindi, Christian Study Centre, 1974.
Brian Moynahan, William Tyndale: if God spare my Life, London, Abacus, 2002.
On this see particularly, Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner, The fate of Communion, The agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2006.
J. H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Notre Dame, Indiana, University Press, 2010.
William Reed Huntington, The Church- Idea: An Essay towards Unity, 4th Edn, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899.
See WJ Marshall, Faith and Order in the North India/ Pakistan Unity Plan, London 1978
See the debate in Robert Wright (ed), Quadrilateral at One Hundred, Cincinnati Ohio, Forward Movement, 1988.
An Appeal to all Christian People, Lambeth Conference, 1920 and the 1930 Conference’s Encyclical in Gillian Evans and Robert Wright (eds), The Anglican Tradition: A Handbook of Sources, London, SPCK, 1991, pp 377, 389f and The Emmaus Report: Anglican Ecumenical Consultation 1987, London, ACC, 1987 pp 9ff.
An Appeal to all Christian People, Lambeth Conference, 1920 and the 1930 Conference’s Encyclical in Gillian Evans and Robert Wright (eds).