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.

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Don’t fool yourself


lutherThe dissertation that I’ve just started writing is on stuff about Martin Luther.

So I’ve begun reading through Luther’s works.  Where did I start?  Where else but where it all began, his Ninety-Five Theses.

Now, just in case you are not au fait with this piece of writing, it is legend!

Firstly, Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses was not written in ’95 in whatever century you might like to choose.  It has come to been known as such because it contains 95 points or theses (plural of thesis) 🙂

lutherThe second thing to know is that Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is not a great protestant declaration, but rather an anti-16th-century-Catholic-abuse declaration. The full title of the writing is called, The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.  In short, Luther was railing against the Catholic practice of selling indulgences so that God would do away with one’s temporal punishment for sins already forgiven.

Let’s say this era wasn’t the high point of the Catholic Church.

The point of this post however is thesis number 92:

92.  Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace!

I am reminded of Colossians 1 where we read about Paul speaking about how the gospel was bearing fruit in the lives of the Colossian believers since the day they first heard it from the great man Epaphras (1:6-7).  The Colossians were not promised fruit but deprived of the seed that produced it, not at all!  The gospel was given and fruit was produced.

appleTo demonstrate that they have not been deprived of the fruit producing agent Paul continues to tell them the gospel.  Having just stated the gospel, Paul states emphatically in 1:23, ‘This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant’.

Luther is calling the Catholic money machine out on this one and saying that they promised the world, but delivered an atlas.  They promise so much through the indulgences and the like, but in fact did nothing more than empty their pockets.

They promised peace, but they received nothing.

Would we dare do the same?  Offer something that the cross does not give?  Or perhaps worse, offer what the cross gives, but neglect to communicate the cross?

How dare Christians offer peace through the cross (95th thesis) and instead provide shackles, hostility and burden.  How dare we offer salvation but teach law and condemnation in the name of eliciting personal change.

carrotHow dare teachers of the good news dangle the carrot of gospel blessing in people’s faces and never hand over the very substance of that good news.

Luther says, ‘Away with them!’

It might not be the 16th century and we might not be Catholic, but we can abuse, subjugate, and withhold blessing from the church just as well by withholding the gospel and thus its fruit from the church if it is not explicitly communicated.

Let’s not pretend or assume to teach the gospel, let’s teach it.  If you not teaching the content of the gospel then you are not teaching the gospel:

I Corinthians 15:1-8

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

This is the gospel that bears fruit.

X/Y-GENS & colour theory


red1Well, it’s election time again in Australia.

The PM has called an election for the 14th of September.  Yep, don’t even bother thinking about it until we start talking about the Eagles and the last weekend in September.  It’s ages away!

Despite the small aeon between now and then we are presented with a dilemma that’s not going away nor becoming simpler to resolve.

Who do you vote for?

As a Christian who do you vote for?

Should being a Christian make a difference?

blueI have a theory.

I have an increasing feeling that my generation (and the one below me) is not so set on where their political allegiances lie when compared with our parents.  Perhaps, 10/15 years ago when we started to vote we followed in line with our parents – this was the norm, but how things have changed.

You’re not a farmer, so you don’t vote National.  You don’t have dreadlocks so you don’t vote Green.  You’re not a sparky, so you don’t vote Labor.  And you’re not a businessman, so you don’t vote Liberal.

BUT…

greenYou care about the environment, you care about dealing with the asylum seeker situation carefully, humanly and lovingly, you care that the needy are provided for, you care that Australia’s future is secured with wise financial management, you care about the continuous development of our great nation’s infrastructure, you care about maintaining your own ethical prerogatives, and you care about how much tax you pay, you care about the situation in the Middle East, and you probably care about some other quirky thing too.

Ok, so which colour do you choose – Blue, Red or Green?

Now I hear the voices telling me of the other colours: mauve, teal, oh, and don’t forget spew, but the bottom line here is that these primary colours (and the secondary ones for that matter) don’t capture our concerns, not even a small portion of them.

greyWhat we are after is achromatic – that middle point on the colour wheel where all the colours converge to create a neutral grey.  A political party that doesn’t focus on one colour or the other, but every colour, shade, and hue in between.

That’s what we want!

I’ve got no answers, just colour theory.

Book Review: Hearing Her Voice – A Case for Women Giving Sermons. By John Dickson.


hearHearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons.  By John Dickson.  Zondervan, 2012. $4.22 (On Kindle here).

The main theme of John Dickson’s latest ebook is the way that modern notions are projected onto first century biblical concepts.  In 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul states, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;she must be quiet.’  Dickson argues that the modern semantic range of the word ‘teach’ (didasko) covers far more than how Paul used the word in the first century.  When the word teach is understood as an apostolic role, the modern semantic range of the words preach, teach and the like, are brought into question, thus opening the door for women to engage in preaching.

The target audience for this ebook is mixed.  While he states that it is not an academic book, he seeks to engage not only ministers, church leaders, and laypeople, but also his colleagues, which ones assumes are academics.  Dickson’s stated intention is to help the reader (re)assess the biblical grounds for allowing or prohibiting women in the pulpit.  The book is persuasive, but there is room for further dialogue on the raised issues, which can be aided by the provided discussion questions at the end of the book.  This section is a great resource for exploring Dickson’s thoughts in a group setting.

To begin with, Dickson outlines that there are many speaking/teaching type roles in the Bible, but only one that women are prohibited from engaging in, and that is the role of teaching (1 Tim. 2:12).  He explains that there are differences between the roles of exhorting, prophesying, evangelizing, reading and teaching.  Dickson grants that there is overlap between these roles, but he is keen to show that any overlap should not negate any apparent distinction.   A helpful clarification is that these speaking roles have a similar content but different function.  In this first chapter, Dickson demonstrates that at the very least women should be able to engage in a number of speaking (‘teaching’) roles that involve biblical content in mixed gender settings because these roles, especially the role of exhortation, most closely resembles the modern day sermon.

In chapter two Dickson seeks to answer the question ‘what is teaching?’  It is argued that in 1 Timothy 2, Paul is not referring to a general conception of teaching but teaching that is authoritative, which he further clarifies using ‘historical realities and biblical text’.  ‘Teaching for Paul means preserving and laying down the fixed traditions of and about Jesus as handed on by the apostles.’  By drawing on the historical reality of the early church’s need for an oral tradition to preserve the core truths, Dickson mounts the case that teaching, in the narrow 1 Timothy 2 sense, is comprised of, and is the communication of, the new covenant truth prior to the advent of the Bible.  The biblical defense is made up of two phrase structures.  The first is similar to that which we read in 2 Timothy 1:13: ‘Follow the sound words you have heard from me.’ (2 Tim. 1:13).  The second phrase is found throughout the Pastoral Epistles: ‘trustworthy word’ (pistos logos) (1 Tim. 1:15, 3:1, 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11 Titus 3:8).  It is thus argued that the notion of teaching is thus a specific role with specific content.

Dickson concludes that the role of preserving the truth is different to the other speaking/teaching roles, which in essence expound the content of the oral tradition.  The concept of teaching in 1 Timothy 2 is referring to the preeminent role of safeguarding, preserving and delivering the content of Jesus’ person and work both orally and later in text.  This, according to Dickson’s argument, is what women are prohibited from engaging in.

In the last two chapters, Dickson’s main thesis comes together as he differentiates between exposition and teaching.  Exposition is explaining what the teachers have preserved.  That is, exposition is the explanation and application of the content (teaching) that has been safeguarded by teachers through oral tradition (and later through text) to the life of the church by men and women.  Dickson explodes the assumption that expounding is equivalent to teaching, though not without a measure of nuanced discussion regarding certain content and function overlap.  An interesting supporting text that Dickson draws on is 2 Timothy 3:16, which states that Scripture is useful (ophelimos) for teaching (didaskalia).  In other words, Scripture (the Old Testament) supports, but is not equivalent to, the apostolic task of laying down the apostolic tradition.

Dickson addresses the obvious critique that someone who is expounding the preserved teaching is in fact preserving and passing on the very content that Dickson has solely ascribed to the apostolic teaching role.  He counters this by explaining that this notion of preserving the teaching is secondary.  The person expounding the preserved truths is not preserving the teaching in the primary apostolic sense.  Such expositors are wholly accountable to the apostolic tradition, whereas the apostolic teachers and the tradition that they preserve is not accountable to anyone in any such way.  In other words, the preservation has been completed and is final.  What is left is the communication of these truths and the application of them to the body of Christ.  For this Paul uses the terms exposition, prophesy, evangelism, etc., all of which women are not prohibited from engaging in.

The argument put forward by Dickson is simple – if teaching is understood in the narrow sense to be the preservation of the apostolic truth, then the command that women cannot teach in 1 Timothy 2 prohibits women from the narrow sense of teaching only, that is, preserving the apostolic tradition.  This allows women to engage with other forms of communicating biblical content to mixed groups.

Dickson’s argument is a compelling reminder to check the glasses that we use when we read the biblical text.  His argument is well rehearsed and buttressed with thorough biblical grounding, historical context and sound logic.  One aspect of the book that needs extra attention and debate, however, is the notion that one who today teaches the apostolic truth is not a teacher (in the narrow sense) but only secondarily so.  It might be argued that while the modern expositor is not the original preserver of the new covenant truth, there is still the requirement to faithfully pass on the truth as it was handed down to them.  Does the famous 2 Timothy 2:2 passage challenge the primary versus secondary distinction that Dickson draws with regard to those that preserve apostolic truth?  What is the difference between the role of Paul, Timothy and the early church fathers, and the preacher in the pulpit today in maintaining the apostolic truth?  Are the roles today of teacher in the narrow sense (even if secondary) and expositor necessarily conflated?  If so, what impact would this have on the discussion of women teaching from the pulpit?

9 Days to Christmas… A time to serve


ice bear fallThis morning we climbed down the steps from out first floor apartment to walk to church.

Katie’s first step outside the door nearly ended in tears (of pain for Katie and laughter for us) as she slipped and slid like a rookie roller-skater.

By the time we all got on the ice we were only able to walk (a generous description of what we were doing) 20 meters in about 15mins.  At that rate we would have missed the service, and the evening service if they had one.   So we turned around and slipped all the way home.

What to do?  Umm, hello, St. Matt’s uniChurch podcast… bring on Jeff Hunt on Mark.  If you haven’t been tuning in then give it a crack.  It’s been great.

st matsI’m up to the September sermon on Mark 9:30-10:31.  What did it have to do with Christmas?  Nothing, but much in many ways.

Jeff’s big idea was that to be great is actually to be small.

To be small is to not claim greatness as the disciples were doing in secret.  To be small is to not be like the rich young ruler who was characterised by his wealth and submission to it.   To be small is to not be like the disciples who turned the children away from Jesus in an attempt to de-clutter Jesus’ life with un-importants.

To be great is not about assumed titles of greatness, pockets full of money, position or age.

To be great is to be small, like a child, generous, submissive and humble.  To be the greatest is to be the servant of all, which Jeff pointed out is what we see in Jesus’ fatal yet not fatal cross-work.

At this time of the year we also understand Jesus’ servant nature in his incarnation.  The Apostle Paul points to this very fact in Philippians 2.  But what Paul does is fabulous.  He couches Jesus’ condescension within the scope of the purpose for his coming.

He became a servant to serve.

For this reason the Christmas story is about the cross.  Check out Paul here in Philippians 2:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Christmas is a time to share the great message that Jesus came to be the servant of all.

A Miracle: Jesus Survived Crucifixion


I watched a documentary last night about how the resurrection did not happen.

Whenever I watch these documentaries, I must admit, the content and presenters elicit a wide range of responses in me.  At some point I often doubt my own beliefs.  I often laugh at the stupidity of some of their hypotheses and accompanying statements.  I get angry when some things are deliberately twisted to secure a point.  And finally, I am encouraged as I come out the other end after I have dealt with the points that they have offered.

Last night they made two points that appear on the surface quite reasonable and even convincing.

Jesus the faker…

Firstly, they claimed that Jesus did not die on the cross.  One university professor cited events in chapter 15 in Mark’s Gospel to question the validity of the resurrection claim in chapter 16.  We read in 15:44 that, ‘Pilate was surprised to hear that he (Jesus) was already dead.’  After all it was only 3 hours after the crucifixion, which was half the time it normally took for someone to die by this ancient execution method, especially since he did not have his legs broken!

That Pilate was surprised that he was dead hints at the fact that Jesus was not in fact dead, but was alive.  This gives rise to a further defence.

For Jesus to get off the cross alive there needed to be some kind of collaboration between the disciples who knew that Jesus was still alive and the centurion in charge of the operation.  Indeed this is what we are told that we find.  In 15:43 we see that a wealthy man called Joseph of Arimathea who, at the request of the disciples one assumes, approaches Pilate.  Of course the disciples were mere fisherman, etc., who did not have the standing to carry out such a request.  After the request by Joseph for Jesus’ ‘dead’ body we read about Pilate’s surprise.  Pilate, in verse 44, then follows due process: ‘Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died’.  Is it a surprise to find out that the centurion in verse 45 takes the perspective of the disciples and Joseph by confirming that Jesus was indeed dead?

But how can we prove that the centurion was in cahoots with the disciples and therefore with Jesus?  It just so happens that this same centurion in 15:39 betrayed his allegiance when he proclaimed that ‘Surely this man (Jesus) was the Son of God!’

So there we have it.  The independent inquirer is Pilate who is surprised that Jesus is dead so soon.  We have the disciples who are working through a rich man to secure the not yet dead body of Jesus with the help of the converted centurion.

The film makers’ conclusion was that Jesus was taken down from the cross while he was unconscious but alive.

But why did the film makers not engage with the story that preceded Jesus’ crucifixion?  Why, even though they admit that the gospels are the greatest source of information about Jesus, do they not engage with the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ death?  Maybe because there is much information in those books that run contrary to their plotline?

Why does the fact that Jesus was brutally whipped and beaten (repeatedly on the head we read in Matthew) not come into play?

Why is the fact left out that the centurion was not alone but was with others who also agreed that he was dead?

They conveniently leave out John’s report that the legs of those crucified that day were due to be broken to speed up their deaths, but when they arrived at Jesus he was already dead.  His legs did not need to be broken.  The centurions (plural) do not leave it to chance, and so they speared Jesus’ side producing a flow of ‘water and blood’, which we are told is what happens after death.

They are happy to employ the Gospel of John to inform us that the legs of Jesus were not broken which supports their view that Jesus could not of had a quick death, but they are not so forthcoming with the surrounding information that speaks of the numerous centurions present to validate the that Jesus was dead, not to mention the spearing of Jesus’ side.

Why is much of this information left our of the picture?  Maybe, Jesus was dead on the cross.  Maybe the centurion did see Jesus die and the supernatural events that happened in that moment.  Maybe Joseph was rich and had Pilate’s ear.  Maybe they took the dead body away and put it in a tomb.  These maybes are not an elaborate scheme, but rather simple.  They don’t reek of a master plan, nor a covert operation.  That a man died is much more feasible.

Jesus did his job.  Pilate and the centurions did their job.  Jesus’ friends did their job.  That was how the first century worked.

Jesus on the run…

The fact that Jesus was alive presents a problem.  This was the basis for the second claim, that Jesus disappeared to either the south of France (not a bad idea if you ask me!) or the Central Asia.  They are right in saying that if Jesus did survive the crucifixion then he would have been a wanted man, after all, he was a traitor and blasphemer who had been sentenced to death.

The film makers betray their own ignorance and agenda in this argument.

As I said earlier, they admit that the vast amount of information that we know about Jesus is by virtue of the four gospel – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  If then we take these accounts as explaining why Jesus was in Jerusalem in the first place why would we think that Jesus would flee Jerusalem after he survives the crucifixion?

The Gospels are very clear that Jesus walked into Jerusalem knowing that his end was nigh.  Firstly, if he knew that his end was fast approaching and that the primary antagonists were in Jerusalem, why would he go to Jerusalem?  If  he wanted to avoid being killed then any sane person would have headed in the opposite direction, or even France!

Secondly, Jesus had an opportunity to say that he was not the king of the Jews and so maybe avoid death, but he chose to engage with what he believed to be the case.  To the question, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ Jesus answered,  ‘Yes, it is as you say.’  If Jesus was trying to get out of dying then he was doing a really bad job of it.

If Jesus did survive the crucifixion why would he run?  If he didn’t run the first time why would he run a second time?  He had been defying the religious authorities for three odd years.  He was clearly not phased by the idea of standing up to them and the consequences that that would bring.

If the gospels are our best source of information about Jesus then perhaps we should engage them in a more holistic fashion.

The film makers created an amazing plot worthy of, not a religion, but a movie:  Jesus did the impossible.

He survived a flogging and crucifixion and being speared his side, he fooled Pilate and the Roman executioners with a nifty blood and water trick, was retrieved off the cross with the help of the role playing rich man and centurions, was smuggled by friends out of the tomb where he lived for three days, before being rescued (again with help of the Roman guards) and fleeing to France and Central Asia.

Sometimes the Gospels don’t sound that wacky at all:)

Jesus: Mystery vs Reality


I just can’t get it.

Whether I’m reading Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas or Karl Rahner I stop at regular intervals for a pause.  And I wait.

And wait.

For what?

When I am reading their works I am constantly in a metaphysical maze that is scrambling to make sense of the senseless with created sense – God.  Put like that it surely is a futile exercise.  The argument generally follows these lines:  God exists; God created; God is other; God is unknowable; God is knowable as unknowable; Therefore know the unknowable through unknowing.

Got it?

Language twists and turns in on itself over and over again until we arrive at divine darkness, the Whither of transcendence, or the other.  God is silence, though not silent.  How could he be when we have the Word?

But even this God-man is mystery – radical absolute proximity, the finite infinite.

But despite the fact that God is not silent in his silence I am left waiting for that voice that will bring the good news that God was really here.  That he arrived.  Walked.  Died.  Lived. Ascended.

Would they deny the real possibility of divine graffiti?

If there was such a thing then I suppose it would have been etched in the hull of the boat, perhaps on one of the wooden planks that comprised the cross.  Maybe that was what he scribbled in the dirt.  Heck, the best place for a quick tag was on the big stone that blocked the entry way to the tomb.

The divine graffiti would have read something like this: Jesus ’33.  Or on a bad day when disappointed with humanity the graffiti would have read – Geezus 4eva!

What I miss in the works of Nyssa, Thomas and Rahner is not a testimony of personal mystical experience, but a testimony of the risen Jesus.

Jesus was a mystery – past tense – but now he is a reality (Colossians 2:26).