Tag Archives: Head and heart

The Minister as Particular Theologian

I have not been very faithful the last couple of weeks in my writing.  The reason for that is largely because I have been immersed in writings by and about Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Jonathan Edwards is most known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  This is, of course, in a way unfortunate, as the breadth of the Edwardsian corpus is much broader than this one sermon.

One of the aspects of his life that I am intrigued by is how he lived out his calling as a minister.   I, at times, wonder if this was simply contextually and temporally specific, or if there is something to ministry that we’ve lost.

It cannot be denied that the world of eighteenth century New England was very different from our contemporary contexts.  However, in many other ways, there were great similarities.  Edwards struggled with his congregation to overcome their spiritual apathy, he dealt with teenage pregnancies in his congregation, and people that little interest in helping those less fortunate. Regardless of whether it is the year 2012, the year 1712, or the year 12, human nature is relatively consistent.

As a parish minister, Jonathan Edwards not only composed a large body of sermons, but also letters and theological books and articles.  Edwards was a venerable theologian, and as a theologian he was also very clearly connected to the church.

One thing that I have consistently encountered during my formal education is a growing division between theory and practice.  Those who engage in “practice” argue that they don’t have to know theory because it is “empty head knowledge.” Furthermore, those who are engaged in theory sometimes lack any practical interest as they are interested in intramural academics. This all contributes to a strong distinction between theoreticians and practitioners.  Although in Christianity there is a rapidly growing distrust of knowledge and education, this phenomenon is not limited to the Church and occurs in many arenas.

I, of course, come at this discussion with a master’s degree from a theological seminary.  I also place a great deal of importance on highly educated clergy, and history has always placed an importance on educated clergy. This trend of lowly or uneducated clergy is of relatively late origin, and the anti-educational sentiment among some is recent as well.  Although I am not sure which is the proverbial chicken and which is the egg, I see this as connected to this trend of divorcing the role of pastor and the role of theologian.

I have heard it argued that theologians do theological work, and pastors take care of things “which really matter to people.”  This of course grieves me to my core.  I am a person who both cares deeply about the church and the people of God and also loves theological work and study.  I have always assumed that I would have to choose, either give up my passion for leading the church and teach in a seminary, or give up my interest in theological work and pastor a parish. I have at times felt as though my only choices where to ignore my heart or ignore my head.

This is what interests me about Jonathan Edwards because he was both a parish pastor who sought to make God real to his congregation week after week, as well as a theologian in his own right.  This inspired my journey on reflecting on the minister as a theologian.

To be sure, I do not have a doctoral degree, and I do not argue that my theological credentials are the same as a professor at a seminary.  However, I do see a minister as a theologian, albeït a theologian of a particular order.

In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, we have four offices: Elder, Deacon, Minister of Word and Sacrament, and General Synod Professor of Theology.  The fourth office (General Synod Professor of Theology) are teachers and theologians of the whole church, they are general theologians.  However, Ministers of Word and Sacrament earn a master’s degree in divinity at a theological seminary and in the local church Ministers serve as “pastor and teacher” (as my denomination’s Book of Church Order defines the role of minister in a local church).  If Ministers as parish pastors see themselves solely as practitioners or as professionals that deal with practical and “down to earth” matters and not theological work, our churches then are devoid of theology and the manufactured gap between theologians and pastors, between theoreticians and practitioners widens.

A minister/pastor however, is not called to be a general theologian, a minister/pastor is called to be a particular theologian.  A pastor is called to be the theologian for a particular people in a particular place; to help the people entrusted to their care experience and make sense of God and their lives.  We are called to love God with our hearts and our minds, and part of the role of the pastor is not only to move someone’s heart but also to help them grow in understanding.  After all, theology, according to St. Anselm, is “faith seeking understanding,” so what better place for theology than in the local church?

As ministry has become a profession rather than a calling, and a job rather than an office, this idea of pastor as theologian no longer seems to make sense.  If pastors are professionals, then their highest responsibility is to run a church — administration, employee supervision, building and grounds superintendence.  This is why some argue that pastors should have education and background in business, because much of contemporary pastoral ministry has devolved into running a business.

However, this is a grossly (and sadly) deficient understanding of ministry.  A pastor is not called to run a church, they are called to help teach and lead the people of God, and a part of this is the ability to be a competent theologian.  I do this not for intellectual exercise, but to help my congregation seek an understanding for their faith, to help make sense of God and make sense of their lives, to understand where God is calling them, and what God desires.

Theologians in a seminary or university, while they may be brilliant theologians, are not able to help my congregation make sense of God and their experience simply due to the fact they do not live and dwell among the congregation.  They are general theologians, who teach the whole church and help to educate and form particular theologians who will live in and exist in a particular community, to understand a particular community, and to speak to the particular experience of a particular community.

As I continue to form my understanding of myself as a pastor and teacher, I have come to be convinced that theological study is a major part of my responsibilities. My study, however, is not solely for general interest or for my own edification, but it is so that I can better help my congregation as they learn to love God with heart and mind, and as they make sense of their existence, as they seek to understand and apply scripture to their everyday lives.  Seeing myself as a theologian allows me to ascend to the pulpit week in and week out and help my folks to understand and apply scripture, it helps my pastoral care as I minister to someone who is dying of cancer, it helps my exhortations as I seek to help people live into God’s desires.

Without adequate study and reflection, my sermons and teaching can become formulaic, simply regurgitating what I find in commentaries.  Without knowing the fundamentals of biblical Greek and Hebrew I am unable to understand the nuances of the original languages.  Without a theological lens or hermeneutic, I will tend to approach every piece of scripture as isolated and I will lack any coherent beliefs that hold consistent, and can be blown easily with any shift in the winds of change.  Without seeing myself as a theologian and scholar, my work to preach and teach the scriptures becomes trite and irresponsible.

My only hope is that we will be able to deepen our understanding of ministry and return to a focus on minister as pastor and teacher and not as the professional who runs the church.

How the Teacher Becomes the Student

The highest assembly of my denomination, the General Synod, meets annually in June. There are delegates which are elders and ministers, and there are corresponding delegates which can speak but not vote. Corresponding delegates are often people with particular expertise or particular experiences that make them valuable additions to General Synod and the denomination values their input. Among these corresponding delegates are those from the three colleges of the Reformed Church in America and from each of the regional synods.

These students are part of a program called “Call Waiting”. This is a program which guides them through the process of General Synod, but also guides them through an exploratory process of call — how and where they feel God calling them and leading them. It is a lofty goal to attain, but it is a process in which we seek to engage as deeply and authentically as possible. For the second year, I have had the privilege of leading the Call Waiting group.

I was recently asked what I enjoy about directing this program. My first response was that I appreciate General Synod and I enjoy helping others to appreciate it as well. While this is true, I do not think that this adequately describes why I truly enjoy directing this program. My true enjoyment comes from the other focus of the program: helping the participants to explore their call.

In order to do this, I choose various “calling” stories from scripture and invite them to reflect upon those stories, first bringing their life close to the story and eventually bring the story to their life. I never cease to be amazed at their insight, self-reflection, and grace. Many of these students have a faith which is very alive and which is very passionate. Some of these students were not raised in the faith but were gifted with faith later, others were born children of the covenant and have recently had the fire of faith rekindled within them, and still others of them have always felt near to the divine.

I am certainly not arrogant or self-centered enough to suppose that I help them to discover or understand their callings; rather, I try to create an environment where we invite God to do this for them. It is a privilege to be able to witness “light bulb moments,” when it is evident that something has “clicked” or that they experienced a revelation of some sort. It is also a great privilege to witness their struggling and wrestling, often things which are so personal and private.

I enjoy facilitating this program not only so that I can see the sparks of their faith, but because they also build up my faith.  At times my faith can be shopworn, and I find cynicism and lack of hope to be easy paths to go down.  However, when I work with these students, I find myself getting pulled back to a road of hope and I find my faith being restored.  It is by witnessing God working in these young people that I can sense God working in my own life as well.  It is seeing these young people who are so passionate about God, that I have a hope for not only our denomination, but also for the church in general.

I enjoy facilitating this program, not only because I have an opportunity to share my knowledge, my experience, and my passion, but I am also able to receive much more than I could ever offer.  I may offer these students some historical perspective, some basic operations of our church order and parliamentary procedure; however, these students, likely without realizing it, offer me hope and they do amazing things to restore and build up my faith.

Water From the Rock

It is a privilege to preach every Sunday.  It is an opportunity that not everyone has.  My community has entrusted me to faithfully exegete and interpret the sacred scriptures.  It is truly a humbling privilege and responsibility, and it certainly is not one that I take lightly.  However, after preaching almost every week for the past seven months, I find that my spring is not gushing forth like it did six months ago. To be sure I am at the beginning of my ministry, so I am certainly not coming to the end of my time (at least I hope not).  Nonetheless, I feel like I am pounding my staff against a rock hoping that, as with Moses, water will flow forth.

Preaching is a task which requires much withdrawal from one’s well.  Sermon preparation and writing is a form of writing that takes much of oneself, far more than the academic writing which I am accustomed to.  Sermons not only have to be composed excellently, they not only have to hold together, a sermon must not only speak to one’s mind, but also one’s heart.

I’ve been struggling the last few weeks to continue bringing rivers of living water to nourish my congregation.  A few months ago, my well was a spring which was bursting through the ground, and it did not take much effort to retrieve water.  Now, I have installed a pump, and each pump of the handle seems to take up less and less water.  A well which ran deep now seems to be a shallow stagnant pond.

There are dry seasons, and there are rainy seasons.  During rainy seasons we collect enough water to fill our cisterns so that we can be sustained during the dry seasons.  I am not sure when this dry season will end, but I deeply hope that the rainy season comes soon.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), my calling does not depend on my feelings on any particular day. It is my job to continue offering my congregation living water.  That is my responsibility which has been given to me.  So until a rainstorm comes, I will continue dashing my staff against the rocks to squeeze out every bit of moisture that I can, and pray that my well will be filled soon.

Accepting Jesus as Personal Savior? (Part 2)

In the first part, I discussed exegetically and theologically some of the challenges when talking about “accepting Jesus”.  In this second (and much shorter) part and conclusion, I will address the problems with the second part of the statement, referring to Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.

The terminology “personal Lord and savior” is problematic because it is not biblical in any way. Scripture never calls Jesus our personal savior, scripture refers to Jesus as the savior of the world. Our relationship with God is not simply “me and Jesus” but it includes the Body of Christ, the church, with whom we must be joined in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus. When we speak of Jesus as our personal savior, then we have no need of a broader body. For instance, I have a personal computer that I do not need to share with others and I have a personal refrigerator in my office which I purchased, and which belongs to me, and is used for my items.

Jesus is not my personal savior or your personal savior. Jesus is the savior of the world. You see, either God is God or not. If Jesus is our personal savior, then the door opens for us to understand others to have different personal saviors, which would certainly be okay because person a can have a personal savior and person b can have a personal savior, but since they are different people, their personal saviors can be different. This reduces the stretch of God and opens the door for pluralism (or universalism), something which evangelicals (those who primarily use this “accepting” and “personal” language) certainly do not want.

Finally, scripture tells us that we did not choose Jesus, but Jesus chose us (John 15:16). Perhaps a better way to talk about this experience is that we have responded to God’s call. There certainly has to be some sort of response, because if God has called us we will bear fruit. Rather than asking if someone has accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and savior, perhaps it would be better to ask if they have felt the call of God. This is more likely to open up a conversation, I know it would with me, and holds the potential for a more fruitful interaction, and a better way to discuss the real issue at hand.

Accepting Jesus as Personal Savior? (Part 1)

I cringe every time I hear someone ask me if I’ve accepted Jesus as my “personal Lord and Savior”, primarily because I don’t know how to answer.

I identify as a child of the covenant. I was baptized when I was an infant, and when I was growing up, I responded to the promises that God made in my baptism. So while I do identify as a Christian, and a follower of Jesus, and a child of the covenant, I never had a time that I “accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” and I never said the “sinner’s prayer.” I also cringe, because I do not think that this is the best way to think about it. I think that the language of “accepting Jesus” and “personal Lord and savior” are both problematic.

The language of “accepting Jesus” is appealing to the ear of American individualists, but it is problematic for two main reasons, the first of which we will discuss in this first part: talk about accepting Jesus is not entirely biblical.

The Bible, particularly the New Testament, does not speak of “accepting Jesus”.  Some English translations do use the word “accept” in various places (such as the NIV), and below are some of the different ways that it is used.  I have also included the lexical form of the Greek word that is used in each instance.

John 5:43, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept [λαμβάνω] him” (NRSV)

John 14:17 “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive [λαμβάνω], because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (NRSV)

Romans 15:7 Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed [(NIV: accepted) προσλαμβάνω] you, for the glory of God” (NRSV)

Romans 10:16 “But not all have obeyed [(NIV: Accepted) υπακούω] the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?'” (NRSV)

Romans 14:1 “Welcome [(NIV: Accept) προσλαμβάνω] those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. ” (NRSV)

1 Corinthians 2:14 ” Those who are unspiritual do not receive [(NIV: accept) δέχομαι] the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. ” (NRSV)

The easiest words to explain are υπακούω (hear, listen, understand, learn from) and δέχομαι (take, take up, approve or accept things, put up with or tolerate someone or something).  The word that appears more often and requires a bit more discussion is λαμβάνω.

λαμβάνω generally means “take”, but it can have several connotations.  It can mean to actively take as in take a hold of something or grasp, it can mean to take into one’s possession, it can mean receive or accept things, such as takes, it can mean to passively receive something or get something, and it can mean to take up receive including recognizing authority.  This last interpretation is what we see above in John 5:43, and this is probably the closest way that one can talk about “accepting Jesus” as in recognizing Jesus’ authority.  Another interesting aside, the usage of λαμβάνω in John 5:43 is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and denotes something that did or did not happen (or will or will not happen), not necessarily a command to do something.

While the Bible does not talk about “accepting Jesus” it does use two other words: believe and confess.

Romans 10:9 “because if you confess [ομολόγησις] with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe [πιστεύω] in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NRSV)

Acts 16:31 “They answered, ‘Believe [πιστεύω] on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ ” (NRSV)

The word ομολόγησις refers to confessing as an act and not as a state of mind or a thought. The word πιστεύω refers to belief as in believe in something, to be convicted of something, to let oneself be influenced, convicted, trust, have confidence in.  These are all connotations of πιστεύω, and these have the more intellectual or affectual undertones.  I find it interesting that the passage above in Romans contains the words ομολόγησις and πιστεύω but not λαμβάνω, and moreover, it includes both an outward action, as well as an internal intellectual/affectual movement — which I suppose is similar to saying the “sinner’s prayer”. It is also important to note that Romans says to confess that Jesus is Lord, not accept that Jesus is Lord, and to believe that God raised him from the dead, not accept that.

The terms confess and believe referring to Jesus are far more biblical terms than “acceptance” which often carries the connotation of giving approval to or to give admission to, neither of which adequately describes our relationship to God.

Additionally, theologically speaking, it places the locus of control on us. I speak from a Midwestern American context, and in such a context we like to be in control of our lives. We like to feel like we can stand on our own two feet, and we like to feel as though we can control our own destinies. We like to feel as though if we fail it is because of bad choices, and we like to feel as though our successes are because of good choices that we made. It is only natural, then, that it should be up to us to accept Jesus or to reject Jesus. After all, it would not seem right for that decision to be made by anyone else but us. Moreover, talking about accepting Jesus places us in a position of control over God. If I apply to a job, they are the ones that have the power over me, because they do the accepting or the rejecting. Therefore, this acceptance language almost is as if we are in a position of authority over Jesus and we are the ones determining whether we should accept him or not.

This is problematic is because it places everything upon us. Our entire relationship to God is then dependent on us, as though none of God’s work was effective until we make it effective. In this worldview Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection only has meaning insofar as we give it meaning, and it has any efficacy only insofar as we accept its efficacy. This, certainly puts us in a position of power over God as we are the ones who determine if God’s work has any ability to restore or redeem.

I think the better question for us to ask is if Jesus will accept us!

Evangeli-mainline-icalism

I grew up in the heart of Michigan’s “Bible Belt,” in an evangelical subculture where people often asked me if I had accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. When I went to seminary, I joined a mainline (but related) denomination. I wholeheartedly embraced my new mainline identity. I read and studied (almost exclusively) from the New Revised Standard Version (which I still consider the finest English translation available), and I loved that my denomination was a founding member of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA.

I am still proud to be a member of a mainline denomination, and I love the Reformed Church, but I think that I have settled on a kind of “evangeli-mainline-icalism”.

There are certain things that I appreciate about evangelicals. Evangelicals are committed to their faith, they have a lot of passion, and they place a special importance on scripture that other writings do not have. Despite these appreciations, however, I am uncomfortable with being placed in one camp or another. In some circles I am way too mainline, other circles I seem like a little too evangelical. Evangeli-mainline-icalism is able to adopt the best of what the evangelical branch has to offer, and the best of what the mainline branch has to offer.

I am committed to my faith, but I am also committed to true ecumenism, something which is more popular in the mainline playbook. Additionally, I have a commitment to peace and justice as a part of living out the Gospel, which is also something which is much closer to the heart of mainline churches than many evangelical churches. Finally, I see the scriptures as inspired in a way that other writings are not, however, I can also listen to the work of science without seeing it as a complete contradiction to my faith or an all-out attack on God.

The way in which I read scripture is also thoroughly mainline. In reading and interpreting sacred scripture, I take into account the social and historical context of the writings to guide my interpretation and I do not understand the Bible as verbally dictated by God to the biblical writers. I don’t believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and that doesn’t lower its authority. I’m not sure that Paul wrote all of the Pauline letters, and the Apostle John likely did not write the Johannine letters. These issues of authorship do not faze me, because if these books are inspired, they are inspired regardless if they were written by one author, or have a few different sources edited together.

Jesus told us that we are to love God with our hearts and our minds, and I think that the best way to do this so to adopt the evangelical heart with the mainline mind. We cannot allow critical thinking to bring up such anxieties within us that we refuse to engage in critical thinking. We cannot settle for an uninformed piety, just like we cannot settle for a faith that lacks an underlying passion for God and God’s coming kingdom. Evangelicals can be guilty of sacrificing mind, and mainline Christians are at times guilty of sacrificing heart. We need both, and we need to learn from one another how to attain both.