Missions Musings 17: Reaching the churched

Good-News-Art-F1-600x300Many of us who live and work in foreign contexts are working with the churched.

When I say churched I am speaking about those people who have been enculturated within a society where the institutional church looms large.

In such contexts the Church’s function is often to dispense salvation.  The church is the one-stop-shop that’s attended twice per year to get what is needed for eternity.  More often than not the churched know of God in a vague abstract sense.  They know about Jesus and his death in as much detail as you or I know about Joan of Arc and her death.  Yep, we’ve seen the movie:)

How does one reach these people?  That is, how does one communicate the life-giving truth of the gospel to those who have not heard it yet?  Here are a few things that have become a part of the way that I do it:

1.  Know their theology

If we do not know what they believe how can we with good conscience rip them away from the church through which they think they are being saved?  We need to be very diligent in understanding what they believe and why so that we can be sure that our actions and message is not in fact dividing the body of Christ.

What should we get to know?  Understand the role of their church in salvation.  Get know what they mean by salvation.  Clearly understand  the place of the sacraments and the role they play in salvation.  Work out what authority they attribute to the Bible and also to tradition.  These points in particular are crucial.

2.  Understand their theological language

This is distinct though closely related to the first point.  Just because you hear the same words being used does not mean that you are talking about the same thing.   So for example, when an Eastern Orthodox believer states that they are saved by faith, we protestants should on face value heartily agree.  Yet if someone was to probe a little deeper the disparity between what the EO christian believes and what a protestant believes becomes apparent.  Ask questions to understand what they mean when they use theological terms.

3.  Use common points of agreement for discussion and study.

It’s a no-brainer, but rarely done.  What normally happens is that we jump to the differences, like icons, candles, papal authority, etc.  Engaging with commonality was Paul’s method at the Areopagus that day in Acts 17.  This is a good starting point because there is often commonality to be found in the person and work of Jesus.  Well, great!  Why don’t we start with Jesus.

Avoid the contentious issues and begin with Jesus.  In Colossians this is how Paul worked.  The church is struggling because fine-sounding arguments have permeate the church which has displaced the gospel.  What does he do?  He doesn’t tackle the apparent error head on until he has prepared the foundation.  Paul firstly explains who Jesus is and then he goes on to explain the gospel.  Only then does he get stuck into the issue at hand.

4.  Don’t treat them like a non-Christian

This is an interesting point that taps into our need to be sensitive.  The churched consider themsleves to be Christians, and they often assume to know everything (don’t we all!) that they need to know.  Therefore to come at them with all the answers and the ‘truth’ is a fast track to causing offense and shutting down any opportunities for good discussion.  Be careful with how they perceive your take on their Christianity.

5.  Use the Bible

Once again it sounds like a no-brainer, but so often the Bible is often sidelined in favour of topical and spaghetti style discussions.  Get the Bible out and establish what the Bible has to say about the common points of interest.  Avoid saying things like, ‘God said…’  and ‘The Bible says…’ and ‘Jesus said….  Unhelpful!  Demonstrate the authority of the Bible in your own faith by using it properly in discussion, taking into account the context of the passage and its place in the Bible’s big picture.  Use the Bible to deal with the issues, but also model its importance and how to use it.

5.  Be open to learning from them

In my study of Eastern Orthodoxy over the past 4 years I have come to appreciate some of their theology.  Let’s give credit where it is due.  Let’s show humility by genuinely wanting to understand what they believe.  It is poor form indeed to merely want to reach them without giving them the opportunity to convince you of their ideas and beliefs.  If we ourselves are seeking the truth then there is no need to be scared of genuinely weighing up what they will present.

6.  Don’t discount the idea that the churched might be in our own (protestant) churches

Don’t assume the gospel, teach it.


6 Days to Christmas…

twitterWell, the Pope’s been at it a week now.

He has the world at his fingertips, well, 1 245 470 people to be exact, plus those that happen to somehow chime in on his 140 characters of wisdom.

I waited and waited for the first tweet.  I wondered what it would be.  A few of my friends on face book gave some suggestion of what he might say.  One hinted that he could be coming out of the closet to profess that justification is by faith alone.  Another one of my witty friends thought he could come out with, ‘Holy Tweet!’,  hahahaa.

What was it?

A bit of a let down really – ‘Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.’

But I tell you what, the full stop was the 140th character – it’s his first tweet and he’s all over this game!

maryHis latest tweet was this: ‘Mary is filled with joy on learning that she is to be the mother of Jesus, God’s Son made man. True joy comes from union with God’ – no full stop (129 characters).

What do you reckon?

Mary, as one who was bearing Jesus (or in union with Jesus) was filled with joy – a reference to the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  If you want true joy as Mary did then you must be in union with God.

True or false?

A little bit of anathema never hurt anybody

Let him be anathema!

Two weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe talking about Jesus to a young aspiring school leaver who was heading to a Bulgarian Orthodox seminary.  I forget the exact details of the discussion, but the gist stays with me.  He was telling me that God, who is wholly other, is unknowable – classic EO line.  When I probed a little further about who Jesus was and what he revealed of God he said it… Jesus could not reveal God as God.

Needless to say we had a hearty discussion.

Interestingly, today I was reading up on some Karl Rahner (RC theologian and priest) and he observed that most Christians (RCs? Although I think his observation would apply to the protestant side too) struggle to capture an orthodox understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity.  He asserts that the majority of Christians would subscribe to a Docetic Jesus where God’s divinity inhabits the fleshly vessel.  God in human clothes made of skin.  Jesus was not fully human, just kind of.

Then you would know about the Elephant Room saga, where Mark Driscoll questioned T. D. Jakes on his view of the doctrine of God, in particular his views on the doctrine of Oneness.  The Oneness doctrine rejects the concept of the Trinity and instead subscribes to a modal view of God.  The entire discussion did little to clarify the situation, but what we do know is that Jakes subscribes to a doctrine of God that uses the terminology of ‘manifestations’ as opposed to persons.

How did the church in times gone by deal with these theological bents?  Simple, ‘Let him be anathema!’

The best example of the ‘Let him be anathema!’ cry is found in Cyril of Alexandria’s work called the Twelve Anathemas.  He was not dealing with a Docetist, but the father of Nestorianism, Nestorius himself.  I don’t intend to go into the content of the letter to Nestorius but Cyril’s view was clear.  Nestorius believed that Jesus had two separate and autonomous natures.  According to Cyril (eventually), Nestorius needed to adopt the position that Christ had two natures but that these were without division or separation.  Cyril’s letter outlines in no uncertain terms how Nestorius could go about working towards reforming his position.  Each of the twelve points ended with ‘Let him be anathema!’  A sure sign that Cyril meant business.

The point?  You get stuff wrong you get the anathema line.

But what was Cyril saying?  My way or the highway?  Are the Twelve Anathemas the sharp words of just another arrogant bigoted fundamentalist?  An intolerant absolutist?

In Cyril’s day, despite Ehrman’s current commentary to the contrary, there was one Lord, one faith, one church, one orthodoxy.  In the 5th century this was defined for the most part by the c. 325 Council of Nicaea, as well as the collective works of the fathers in the 200 odd years prior to it.  Orthodoxy was not some ambiguous thing that any one individual could trump up and it was for this reason that the powers that be could compare an individual’s theology with that of the orthodox tradition.  If someone fell outside of the bounds they were met with the severe response: Let him be anathema!

The point is that in those times messing up your doctrine of God was serious business with serious, potentially eternal, repercussions.  The church new this and the proponents of the heterodox views knew this also.

What has changed?  A lot and nothing.

Nothing has changed in that the issues are just as serious.  Fiddling with orthodox views of the divinity and humanity of Christ and the Trinity, for example, is not to be done flippantly as though it were a choice of strawberry or chocolate.  What we see in the first millennium and a half is an urgency coupled with a holy fear to be faithful to how the great theological minds throughout history conceptualised God in Scripture.  Surely our attitude should be the same!  We have the privileged of enjoying the longevity of these views – you know the old line, standing on the shoulders of giants.

Furthermore,  nothing has changed in that Arianism is still as heretical as it was in the 3rd and 4th centuries.  Docetism is still errant.  Nestorianism 1500 years on has not become any more faithful to the text of Scripture then it was in the 5th century.  History for the believer is not simply about dates, times and events.

History plays a role in what we believe, but also importantly in what and why we don’t believe.

We also see that nothing has changed with regard to the very specific use of anathema in the Bible.  Here are two apt usages:

  • Gal. 1:8-9But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema). 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (anathema).
  • 1 Cor. 16:22,  If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha.

But something has changed!

One can openly deny the doctrine of the Trinity and hold to Oneness views of God and still be counted as a part of the church.  One can grow up in a church and hold to Docetic views of Christ unchallenged.  We no longer here the damning cry, ”Let him be anathema!’

I wonder why?

Well, it probably doesn’t surprise you, but I have some suggestions:

  1. Perhaps it’s a mark of our age of tolerance.  You can believe what you want over there and I’ll be over here believing what I want.
  2. Worse, perhaps it reflects our age’s characteristic pervasive interpretive pluralism.
  3. Perhaps it points to our poor theological training systems.  I mean, where do people learn that historically damned views can be considered as viable orthodox theology?
  4. Maybe, as we observe in many of our denominations, the little or no doctrinal accountability  has come back to bite us.  Ok, you can try to win me over on any form of church governance, but it is clear that the NT teachers submitted to the top dogs when it came to theology.  When they were in error they (and we) knew about it.
  5. Or could it be as elementary as not knowing our church history.

Time to bring it back – ‘Let him be anathema!’ for God’s sake!

Pope Leo the Great’s big Tome

Ron Burgundy from the film Anchorman and Jesus have at least one thing in common, most notably that they self-proclaim that they are ‘kind-of-a-big-deal.’

The merits of their respective claims are interesting.  Ron’s claim seems to be a bit fanciful, whereas Jesus’ claim seems to pan out in the history of the world.  Time will tell I suppose with Ron Burgundy:)

Of late I’ve been reading a fair amount of literature from the Christological (Who is Christ?) controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries.  The reason for the controversies is that all of the people involved thought Jesus was ‘kind-of-a-big-deal’ and was worth the blood, sweat, ink, travel, time, arguments and money trying to defend their take on who the 1st century Jew really was.

I’ve been mainly interested in Theodoret of Cyrus and his involvement with Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria.  Further afield, however, I’ve been curiously captured by Bishop Leo of Rome’s (AKA Pope Leo the Great) Tome.

The Tome was written to a bloke called Flavian who was a patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey).  Leo wrote the letter to encourage and support Flavian who was having a crack at a monk called Eutyches (378-454 A.D.) for his dodgy take on Jesus.  Eutyches was blending the natures of Jesus, which simply resulted in Jesus’ humanity being absorbed into the Logos, or his divinity.  Crassly put, Jesus was more God than man.


Leo’s Tome was sent to support Flavian’s argument against Eutyches at the Council of Ephesus in 449.  The great shame was that the Tome was left in the inbox – it wasn’t read!  Flavian was given a beating at the council, literally, and he died a few days after the council was closed.  Leo’s last words in the Tome never reached Flavian in this dark time, ‘God keep you safe, beloved brother.’


Our ol’ mate Eutyches was deemed orthodox by the council and was let off scot-free.

The impact of the Tome is kinda like getting a wicket off a no ball.  For all the effort and precision that was put into the delivery it was deemed null and void.  Who knows what impact Leo’s Tome might have had on the council’s outcome, and Flavian’s death?  It is therefore understandable that Leo called this council the ‘robber’s synod’ – I thought that was fairly gracious of him, actually.  I’m sure I would have thought of something a little more cutting than that.

But this is just my point…

If you were to read the Tome without knowing the violence, scuttlebutting, and back room deals that were going on, it would not seem so out of place.  But knowing the context of the controversy into which the writing enters the Tome is a gracious and beautiful piece of writing.

It possessed authority that Leo demonstrates by using firm questions and rebuke.  This negative aspect of the Tome is balanced, however, with confident and careful wording of his own defence of the humanity and divinity of Christ.  In the final chapter Leo identifies the need to show kindness because of the kindness shown him by Jesus in the event that Eutyches retracted his errant doctrine.  Of course we understand this generosity against the backdrop of novationist ideas.

Finally, I like a whole bunch of one-liners from Leo.  How do you like these:

But at the same time the only begotten of the eternal Father was born eternal of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

For we should not now be able to overcome the author of sin and death unless He took our nature on Him and made it his own.

And then he would not speak so erroneously as to say that the Word became flesh in such a way that Christ, born of the Virgin’s womb, had the form of man, but not the reality of His mother’s body.

Majesty took on humility…

Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true man was true God born, compete in what was His own, complete in what was ours.  And by ‘ours’ we mean what the Creator formed in us from the beginning and what He undertook to repair.

For both natures retain their own proper character without loss…

Begotten in a new order by a new nativity…

Abiding before all time He began to be in time…

And in this union there is no lie…

Leo expressed much about Jesus in the Tome because he believed that Jesus was ‘kind-of-a-big-deal.’  Not only did he express the truth of his own convictions regarding Jesus, but expressed this same truth by the manner in which he expressed them.

Leo’s words were befitting of a Bishop – he communicated who he thought Jesus was in doctrinal terms and also with the character in which those words were couched.

A lesson for us all as we seek to set wrongs right.

Dogmatic – like a dog at a bone

One of the worst insults being thrown around these days, besides being called intolerant, is being called dogmatic.

I suppose it refers to holding some opinion in the face of opposition and not caving in.  Stubborn, not wanting to budge in spite of the obvious evidence.  Arrogant, thinking that this is it, there is no other.

This is the charge often aimed at the Christian.  It is also a label that some Christians openly and deliberately flee in order to escape the typecast narrow-minded religious bigot label.

On both fronts I find them interesting, and rather naive.

In the first instance, it is like calling an NBA star an athlete, an artist creative, or food tasty.  It would be absurd if they were not these things.  The second instance seems equally absurd.  It’s like saying you’re an NBA athlete but resisting the idea that you are an athlete, or that you are an artist and claiming you’re not creative, or that you are a chocolate bar and that you’re not tasty.

It seems to me that they are holding views that are, well, dogmatic.  They refuse to look at the evidence and understand that their points of view are stubborn and arrogant, suffering from a severe lack of historical nearsightedness, and self-understanding.

Firstly, I am what you might call a Baptist, but I am first and foremostly a Christian in 2011, that is, a Christian that has the beautiful inheritance of 2000 odd years of Christian tradition.  There have been minds so much more capable than mine that have thought about the issues that we deal with today.  They have come up with some pretty sweet answers to these issues.  Who am I to treat this rich and Godly tradition as something that I don’t belong to?  Who am I to think that what they have hammered out has no authority or credence today, in my thinking?

So, can dogma be questioned?

Some say no, but this exposes their poor understanding of history.  Dogma is always being questioned, as it should be.

I am not only a Christian living at the end of 2000 odd years of tradition, I am also a Christian that enjoys the tradition that is the result of questioning dogma.  The 16th century reformers posed questions that challenged prevailing dogma about the place of faith in salvation.  They challenged the role of tradition in forming of dogma.  And much much more.

Dogmatic is what a Christian is, whether we like it or not.  What, did we come up with the stuff that we believe, or do we believe what has been hammered out and passed down?  What I am talking about here is not blind naivety, far from it.  It involves careful biblical reading and understanding coupled with quiet prayerfulness.

Dogmatic is what a Christian should be because we want to reflect the teaching that is foundational to historical Christianity.  It is to be defended and faithfully taught, believed and lived by.  We are not talking about arrogant monologuing but rather speaking with strength and gentleness with conviction.  It is not like an ugly birthmark that we want to hide from, but an inheritance that we enjoy living in and living up to.

We should love to be dogmatic about our dogma.