Apostolic Partridge

Short conferences in comfortable, mid-range hotels breed a certain absurdity that really does need to be called out…

The unnaturally warm ambient temperature reminds me of childhood excursions to M&S with my mum (every one a near-death experience from suffocation, boredom and trampling by old folk or, if you were unlucky, all three). The ever-so-slightly creepy decor that invites you to make yourself at home (even though we both know that nobody’s home looks like this) and restaurant food that flatters to deceive (because the nagging suspicion that this is no more than an up-market ‘ding dinner’ never really goes away).

Add two days of news, reports, reports, reports, strategy, reports, news, reports, teaching, reports, prayer and a few reports into the mix and it all gets a bit Hotel California (“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” and all that!)

Alas, the Mercure Norton Grange Hotel near Rochdale is less “Hotel California” and more “Linton Travel Tavern” so in keeping with an Alan Partridge theme allow me to preface a brief report of my own by saying,

“Knowing me Alan Rose, knowing you Christ Central Extended Apostolic Team…Ahaaa!”

Joking aside, it was a good 48hours, but there were too many reports. Just saying. There was a dynamic sense of God calling us into deeper participation in what he is doing- with emphasis on the he of course- while John Payne spoke with grace and candour about the need for emotional health among leaders. Even though I am more of an introvert and small talk sometimes scares the pants off me, the chit-chat was enriching and I connected with a few people in deeper ways, which was cool.

I’ve got some thoughts brewing on church planting, the rhetoric of a movement and missiological assumptions (!) but they’ll have to wait for another day. For now I’ll just say “cheers” to Jeremy and the team (and the Norton Grange staff) and I’ll see you at the next thing.

In a bit…

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The Priesthood of Plastic Doggies

Howdy.

Mondays are funny days for me.

To tell you the truth, I quite often feel like I’m climbing up the walls on a Monday. It’s a really weird feeling to go from a busy week preparing, studying, pastoral stuff and then preaching a sermon to then suddenly stopping, and needing to be present to my wife and three-year-old son. Often I wake up on Monday mornings with what I call a ‘Preachers Hangover’ and want to pull the duvet back over my head and hibernate until lunchtime. But I just can’t do that, can I?

So there’s this big moment of decision week by week- to trust that Jesus meets me with fresh life as I make a decision to die to my personal feelings of need or entitlement (time, space, sleep or whatever) and give myself to God by giving myself to my family. Currently, wrestling my life into submission to Jesus feels like it involves learning the lesson that loving God means being present to Susanna and Zachary.  Good grief! My own sense of self-importance is ridiculous!

This morning I got to read my bible in and around Zach setting up his toy farm- God’s instructions to Moses about silver trumpets and priestly duties in Numbers mingled with laughter as Bruno the dog (a plastic Pug) took a ride on a tractor with a few plastic pigs.

At the beginning of the year I asked God to lead me into imagea deeper spirituality, a less hurried and more present way of life as a pastor… Less chomping at the bit for the next thing; more submitting to my limitations as a human being. Less manic prayer; more developing sacred rhythms of prayer and meditation.

The word became flesh (John 1:14), not the other way around.

No surprises then that God is teaching me what it looks like to be a man of God with a bible in one hand and a plastic Pug called Bruno in the other.

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Four Views on the Atonement: A Book Review

In this review of the IVP title, ‘The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views’ I shall briefly outline the content of each of the four views of the atonement- Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Healing and Kaleidoscopic- presented in this work, critically evaluate each view and the author’s presentation before offering some personal concluding remarks. It’s a long piece, so get yourself a cup of tea and strap yourself in…

Summary of the Christus Victor View (Greg Boyd)

At the heart of Greg Boyd’s presentation of the Christus Victor view of the atonement is the idea that Christ- in his incarnation, life, death and resurrection- defeated the devil, and he repeatedly emphasises this throughout his essay. Boyd sets his argument for the Christus Victor view against the backdrop of Yahweh’s conflict with unruly and chaotic forces in creation, arguing that a warfare motif is central to understanding not only Christ’s death, but also his whole life and ministry.

Boyd argues that when the New Testament speaks about salvation, it is a cosmic reality before it is an anthropological one, therefore the soteriological significance of Christ’s death for individuals is predicated on the cosmic significance of his victory over Satan and demonic powers. Anthropologically speaking, salvation means deliverance from the grip of the powers and participation in Christ’s victory over them. Our participation in Christ’s victory demonstrates the richness of God’s wisdom as revealed in Christ, and reminds the powers of their defeat at calvary as we live lives of calvary-like love. In Greg Boyd’s view, the Christus Victor model of the atonement is the central piece of the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ.

Critique of Boyd’s Argument

I have a lot of sympathy for the Christus Victor model of the atonement, and I generally enjoyed Greg Boyd’s articulation of it, even if I didn’t agree with him on every detail. I appreciated Boyd’s focus on the cosmic outworking of Christ’s accomplishments that sets human salvation in the bigger picture of the reconciliation of all things- a potentially helpful corrective to the contemporary church and the overly-individualistic Christian culture that often seems to go with it. I also found it refreshing and illuminating that he drew on the Old Testament’s picture of Yahweh as a warrior who vanquishes the cosmic foe (even if I did balk at the idea of creation as a ‘cosmic war zone’). I was slightly surprised that Boyd (contra Gustaf Aulén) did not explicitly address the theological question of the incarnation and how it relates to the Christus Victor model, as it seems to be such a significant part of Aulén’s defence of the view. It was helpful that Boyd attempted to tidy up some of the more speculative views surrounding ancient interpretations of Christus Victor, but I found his defence of the idea that God deceived Satan, and that Christ was somehow ‘bait’ for Satan, thoroughly indefensible on the basis that scripture never makes that claim.

And that leads me to address what I perceive as perhaps the weakest part of the Christus Victor model as articulated by Greg Boyd: the Christus Victor model appears to function as a lens through which Boyd not only views the atonement, but also the entire Bible. I am in no doubt that the motif of warfare is a significant part of the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ, but Greg Boyd assigns centrality to it. He accomplishes this by seemingly cherry-picking verses that fit his model. For example, on p.30 Boyd claims that, ‘According to the New Testament, the central thing Jesus did was “drive out the ruler of this world” (John 12:31).’ Not only does this claim a centrality for the works of Jesus based on just one verse from John’s gospel, it also assumes that the central message of John’s gospel is basically the Christus Victor model of the atonement. Then confusingly, on p.31 we read, ‘The central thing Jesus did, according to Peter, was fulfil Psalms 110:1.’ Again, this not only makes the assumption that the Christus Victor model of the atonement is what Psalm 110:1 is all about, but also that it was the centre of Peter’s (or indeed Luke’s) theology.

In short, there is much to affirm and embrace in Greg Boyd’s treatment of the Christus Victor model of the atonement, and yet there are some significant elements to be critical of, not least those that appear to superimpose a theological model onto the text, claiming a centrality that is not obviously self-evident in the work of the biblical authors themselves.

Summary of the Penal Substitution View (Thomas R. Schreiner)

At the heart of the Penal Substitution model of the atonement is the understanding that God the Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy God’s justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserve was laid on Jesus Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested. The sinfulness of humanity, the holiness of God and the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice are all key elements in this model, with Schreiner claiming that ‘… penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole’ (p.67).

Schreiner states that penal substitution, although not exhausting all that there is to say about the atonement, is at the heart of the atonement and is the anchor of all other theories of the atonement because it puts God at the centre of the universe. In penal substitution the most important question for humans is, “How can I enjoy a right relationship with God?” Penal substitution answers that question by presenting Christ as the sinless substitute, offering himself willingly to God as an atoning sacrifice, thereby absorbing the wrath of God that humanity’s sin deserves and securing for us instead God’s favour. Schreiner asserts that ‘Human beings need atonement…because they are sinners, because they have failed to measure up to God’s law. God demands perfect obedience, and no one has met the standard’ (p.76).

Critique of Schreiner’s Argument

Thomas Schreiner argues meticulously for the Penal Substitution model of the atonement, carefully unpacking the key themes and staking a claim for the primacy of this view over the others. Schreiner claims that penal substitution provokes the most negative response out of any of the theories of atonement, and that it needs to be defended because of the incredulity with which it is met in scholarly circles.

Schreiner insists that ‘… penal substitution functions as the anchor and foundation for all other dimensions of the atonement when the scriptures are considered as a canonical whole’ (p.67) and that ‘We must demonstrate from the scriptures themselves that penal substitution is the heart and soul of God’s work in Christ’ (p.72). I greatly appreciate Schreiner’s insistence on the scriptures as the arbiter of whether Penal Substitution holds primacy, but at the same time I must question his presuppositions; what does Schreiner mean when he speaks about scripture as a ‘canonical whole’? Which particular way of reading the scriptures as a canonical whole is he referring to? Is he reading Penal Substitution back into the Old Testament in order to find a canonical reading that fits his pre-existing theological framework? Of course, Schreiner does not offer the answers to these questions, but they seem to be important questions to ask nonetheless, particularly when wide-ranging claims are being made about any one theological system.

I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in regarding Greg Boyd’s treatment of the Christus Victor model, viz. that the Penal Substitution theory can clearly be gleaned from scripture, but to claim primacy for it seems to be going beyond scripture itself. Let me offer a few critical observations to support that claim…

  1. Penal Substitution is not the central theme in the canonical gospels, in fact it could be argued that it is a marginal theme at best, and even that is debated (cf. Mark 10:45).
  2. The apostolic preaching recorded in Acts only gives sparse mention of the cross, let alone a fully-blown doctrine of Penal Substitution. This could be viewed as highly unusual if Penal Substitution is at the heart of the New Testament’s witness to Christ and his accomplishments.
  3. In attempting to defend Penal Substitution scripturally, Schreiner appears to either ignore or flatten out the distinctions made between Jew and Gentile in the New Testament, especially with regard to the law. This is particularly noticeable in, for example, Galatians 3:13 where the ‘us’ must be referring to ethnic Israel, and not to a generic humanity so that Christ’s unique role as Israel’s Messiah is reduced somehow.
  4. Finally, despite what Schreiner says about the Godward focus of Penal Substitution, it seems to frame the ultimate questions in a way that places humans and their salvation at the centre of the entire bible.

Summary of the Healing View (Bruce R. Reichenbach)

In the healing view of the atonement, the wellbeing that God intends for humans to experience and enjoy is hindered by the human condition that began at the fall. This predicament is manifested in the sickness and sin that work against the vision of human flourishing (encapsulated in the Hebrew word shalom). The atonement functions as healing for us because it restores (or heals) the relationship between humans and God by means of Jesus Christ, the suffering servant, who bears our iniquities and grants forgiveness. Additionally, the punishment we deserve for our sin- a punishment often apportioned by ‘suffering, sickness and calamity’ (p.130)- has also now been absorbed by Jesus Christ in order for us to know and experience the full richness of shalom intended for us by God.

Critique of Reichenbach’s Argument

Bruce Reichenbach’s argument for the primacy of a healing view of the atonement focuses on the human need for healing and places significant weight on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as the textual basis for his argument. The editors of the book confess on p.21 that Reichenbach’s argument is ‘not reducible to a merely subjective approach’ (a confession born out by comparing Gustaf Aulén’s articulation of subjective theories of the atonement), but it certainly appears to be the case that Reichenbach’s chief concern is human restoration and flourishing. On one level this is hugely commendable, for the scriptures clearly bear witness to God as a healer in both the Old and New Testaments. On another level, however, I have a number of concerns with Bruce Reichenbach’s approach, some of which are theological, some hermeneutical and others pastoral.

Firstly, from a pastoral perspective, Reichenbach’s approach is confusing- if healing is in the atonement, should we not expect every person who comes to God through Christ to be healed? What happens when somebody is not healed? And if some sicknesses are the result of sin and others are not, how should one discern which is which? From a hermeneutical perspective, Reichenbach’s insistence on the primacy of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as the bedrock for understanding the work of Christ appears to studiously ignore the multitudinous quotations and allusions to the rest of Deutero-Isaiah peppered throughout the New Testament in reference to Christ! Reichenbach claims that we are ‘hard-pressed not to see Matthew intentionally referring to the healing dimension of the atonement’ (p.131) in Matthew 8:17. Matthew certainly links Jesus’ actions to Isaiah 53:4, yet can we really assume that Matthew understands Isaiah 53:4 in the exact same way that Bruce Reichenbach does? Is Matthew simply proof-texting, or is there a deeper story that he is telling in making the connection between the healing performed by Jesus and the Suffering Servant? Additionally, Reichenbach apparently fails to see that Peter’s use of Isaiah 53 in 1 Peter 2:21-25 is not a proof-text to bolster an atonement theory but rather forms the heart of his exhortation to follow Christ’s example, which includes suffering. Finally, from a theological perspective, the eschatological dimension of healing is conspicuous by its absence in Bruce Reichenbach’s presentation. If, as Reichenbach urges us, we should avoid bifurcating Jesus’ life and death in order to see ‘Christ’s atoning work… as part of the entire incarnational event’ (p.131-2) then it follows that we must also understand healing in the light of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ are the guarantee that the whole creation- not just the human part- will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

Bruce Reichenbach did not convince me that the healing model of the atonement deserves to have primacy, and his presentation left me with far more questions than answers. In focussing on the atonement as healing for humans, Reichenbach missed the cosmic perspective of the atonement highlighted by the Christus Victor model and bypassed the holiness of God that is vital to the Penal Substitution model. Reichenbach rightly draws attention to God as a healer and the human need for healing, but in my opinion his argument fails for lack of depth and breadth.

Summary of the Kaleidoscopic View (Joel B. Green)   

The kaleidoscopic view of the atonement makes a case for embracing a plethora of ways for understanding the significance of Jesus’ death. Joel B. Green insists that we seek to understand the events of Jesus’ life and death in the context of the first-century Palestinian world within which they took place, and asserts that theological reflection on the significance of Jesus’ death cannot be severed from the socio-religious and socio-political contexts to which they belong. The historical context then, along with an understanding of God’s eternal purpose as revealed in Christ, provide two points of reference between which a wide space opens up for discussing how the Christ event accomplishes salvation.

Green argues that the New Testament’s witness to the Christ event reflects an ongoing concern for unity and diversity in its articulation of the significance of that event. The unity is essentially theological and is reflected, for example, in the assertion that God demonstrated his love by means of something Christ did (cf. Romans 5:8). This unity is then manifested missiologically in the diverse ways in which the significance of God acting in Christ is portrayed by the apostolic testimony (e.g. reconciliation, substitution, illumination, justification), a diversity that reflects the various social contexts into which the kerygma of the Christ event was addressed.

Evaluating Green’s Argument… 

I would like to suggest that perhaps the most significant difference in the Kaleidoscopic view- in relation to the other models of the atonement presented in this book- is that the Kaleidoscopic view emerges from a strand of Narrative Theology, while the other models (particularly Christus Victor and Penal Substitution) reflect a commitment to Systematic Theology. Green’s methodology is evidenced in his insistence on understanding the Christ event in the light of the socio-religious and socio-political climate of First Century Palestine (a methodology that is evidently happy to embrace historical-criticism as a tool by which we might gain greater theological clarity). One might say that the proof of the theological pudding is in the eating(!), so what is gained or lost in Green’s Kaleidoscopic view of the atonement?

In terms of losses, it could be argued that the Kaleidoscopic view allows for far too much imprecision in explaining exactly how the atonement functions for the believer. Additionally, by not explicitly aligning with any one classical view of the atonement, the Kaleidoscopic view runs the risk of falling foul of the cult of novelty. What I think is gained from a Kaleidoscopic view of the atonement is a sense of the sheer scale of the gospel, and a remarkable sense of the whole biblical narrative reaching a climax. I think one of the great strengths of Green’s presentation is his observation that God demonstrates his love by means of what Christ does (p.168), an observation that perhaps implicitly suggests a Christology of divine identity. Although Green does not explicitly develop this connection, a Christology of divine identity would certainly influence how one would answer Anselm’s question, ‘Cur Deus Homo?’ and may even help to steer a path through the theological issues that can beset the subjective and objective views of the atonement (e.g. does atonement facilitate a change in God’s demeanour toward humanity or vice-versa?)

In the eyes of this reviewer, whatever one loses in terms of precision is more than made up for by the scope and potential of the Kaleidoscopic view of the atonement as argued for by Joel B. Green.  While the three contrasting views in this book do not exactly want to shut down other models of the atonement, their claims to primacy are already foreclosing to some extent on both the scope of the atonement and conversation about the atonement.

Concluding Remarks

I cannot quite shake off the notion that the title of this book is slightly misleading. To my mind, what is presented is not so much four views of the atonement as three classic views of the atonement and a new hermeneutical model for understanding the atonement! I enjoyed reading Boyd’s, Schreiner’s and Reichenbach’s work- I shall come back to Green shortly- and feel as though they have given me a broader understanding of the classic theories of the atonement. However, in terms of a personal response to the three classic theories of atonement espoused in this work, I remain unconvinced that any one of them should have primacy.

Joel B. Green’s Kaleidoscopic approach excited me the most- it developed a narrative-theological framework for understanding the atonement, took historical-critical questions seriously, implied a more robust Christology than the classic theories of atonement, and opened up multiple avenues for applying the gospel in both preaching and pastoring.

I can understand and appreciate how Boyd, Schreiner and Reichenbach arrive at their respective views, I just think that they are all guilty to some extent of reading the biblical text through the lens of their favourite atonement theory. Of course, nobody reads anything from a place of absolute objectivity, and I am under no allusion that my own opinions, let alone those of Joel B. Green, are coloured by cultural and epistemological presuppositions. That being said, a faith seeking understanding must decide upon a reading of the biblical text that adequately and faithfully interprets the central kerygmatic content of that text: the person of Jesus Christ. My personal conviction is that Joel B. Green’s Kaleidoscopic view provides the most satisfying interpretation of the biblical text as it relates to the atonement.

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For über-busy pastors

muck2I think we’re in one of those so-called purple patches in our church right now. You know, the times when stuff just seems to be working and being a pastor doesn’t feel like jogging through a muddy field behind a muck-spreader? It’s not that people are falling on their faces and crying, “What must I do to be saved?” It’s more this amazing feeling of being…carried.

I wish those times were available on demand, but you and I both know it doesn’t work that way. I’m not saying that there isn’t any hard work involved, it’s more that there is a big old difference between working hard with God and working hard for God.

Working hard with God?

It’s not an attempt to get Jesus to do something.

It’s not about giving other people the impression that Jesus really is doing something.

It’s not about hoping that Jesus will reluctantly own what we’ve decided he is going to do.

SpadeThe Genesis garden narrative tells us that God created the heavens and the earth, then he placed a man and a woman in the garden to cultivate and steward it, to participate in the creation project. Right from the start there was a God given vocation for image bearers.

There was hard and dirty work to do as image bearers, but it was work with a God who was there first, who had gone ahead of them and who had taken the initiative in creation.

In Deuteronomy 1.26-33, Moses reminds Israel that God fights for them (v.30), carries them (v.31) and goes ahead of them (v.33), lest they fall prey to thinking their own savvy has established them in the promised land.

In Mark 1.35-39, Jesus doesn’t even entertain Simon-Peter’s reactive statement, “Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus will work hard alright, but he will do it in response to what God is doing out of a place of un-busyness and prayer, rather than in reaction to people.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.10, “…I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

I’m learning that you work hard when God has clearly opened a door for something, but that our hard work follows God’s creative actions (just like the garden) not that our hard work pre-empts God.

  • I’m learning un-busyness rather than being über-busy to make up for the lack of whatever it is that über-busy pastors feel they need to make up for.
  • I’m learning the deliberate ways of waiting, watching and inclining my ear to God and then responding to him, not reacting to people.
  • I’m learning that King Jesus is on the throne, not ‘Pastor’ Alan.
  • I’m learning that I’m a participant, not the controller…

 

And it’s really good!

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All Wright in the cheap seats

Having read Andrew Wilson and Matt Hosier’s pieces over at the THINK Theology blog, I feel oddly compelled to share some thoughts about a day spent listening to N.T. Wright, but perhaps from a different angle. I must admit that some of Matt’s comments came across as a little mean to me. Who knows, perhaps my pre-teen christening and confirmation imparted some subliminal Anglicanism to me that makes me more okay with churchmanship that strays outside of middle-of-the-road evangelicalism?
 
Last week I had the genuinely enthralling experience of listening to a man who, if not already, will be regarded as a legend in his field in future generations. Professor N.T. (Tom) Wright took a day out of his extremely busy schedule to lecture (well, preach to be honest) on the apostle Paul and the cross of Christ at the THINK conference in London. 
 
I am glad that I went for a number of reasons: Tom’s remarkable erudition warmed my heart and enlarged my perspective on the scriptures. His warmth of manner was a refreshing alternative to the sometimes shrill and polemical voices that plague so much of evangelical scholarship. Tom showed remarkable humility in the way he communicated because,  although I am sure he could have easily run intellectual rings around everyone in the room, there were moments that felt like the theological equivalent of Lionel Messi having a kick-around with some scruffy lads from the favela. 
 
But the thing that really got me, the cherry on top of the icing on the cake if you like, was Tom’s astonishing vulnerability in sharing some very real personal pain and asking us to pray for him.
 
I don’t yet know if that will prove to be the most enduring memory of hearing Tom speak (it’ll be a close call with the remarkable moment when he preached on Philemon) but I do know this: those of us in the-movement-formerly-known-as-Newfrontiers have a lot to learn not only in breadth and depth of theological understanding, but equally importantly in the death of a self-importance that is unwilling to show weakness or vulnerability for fear of either undermining faith or losing face as a leader who has stuff ‘together’.
 
It wasn’t long ago that I heard a high profile leader in said movement-formerly-known-as-Newfrontiers awkwardly fudge the answer to a personal question about family, when the real answer (which I happened to know was a lot more complex than the one given) would not only have encouraged younger leaders such as myself, but also was an opportunity to express real humility and vulnerability. I don’t know why some in the earlier generations of Newfrontiers leaders apparently find it so hard to express weakness or vulnerability (things that Jesus or Paul apparently had no qualms with) or think that ‘relationship’ is a thirty-second ‘connection’ between meetings at a conference, but the nagging feeling that it’s all a bit phoney was only strengthened by hearing Tom share so candidly. 
 
I’d like to make an appeal as one of the younger generation of whatever-it-was-that-used-to-be-Newfrontiers to the older generation… 
 
We love you and we won’t lose confidence in God if you talk about your uncertainty, fear or failures – we are pretty convinced that Jesus upholds the cosmos by the word of his power, not you – so stop the face-saving tactics; we know you’re not perfect, so quit trying to keep the charade up. We’re also far more savvy about your weaknesses and vulnerabilities than you think we are, so just be honest with us!
 
I want to be like Tom Wright when I grow up (and I don’t just mean that I want to be able to read the Greek text perfectly, although admittedly, that would be nice). I want to be like Tom Wright when I grow up because I want to be more like Jesus, and I saw and heard in Tom Wright a man whose knowledge, humility, warmth, love and vulnerability reminded me of Jesus. 
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There’s Something Wrong with our Worship (Part 2)

The more I read and think about verses like Colossians 3.16-17 and Ephesians 5.19-20, the more I am convinced that the western church in the 21st Century is in need of serious reformation in terms of its worship practice. Yesterday’s post began to look at the ways in which we might be turning the church’s corporate worship into an individualistic, unitarian and therefore sub-Christian practice. Today I want to explore a few ideas and observations around Paul’s use of the terms ‘Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’. 

 

Both Colossians and Ephesians envisages the gathered congregation addressing one another with ‘Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’. What should we make of those terms? Are they just a reference to the early church worship leader’s ‘song list’? I’m going to contend for  a little more than that actually. 

Psalms

The question I am wrestling with is, “What function did Psalms have in Israel’s faith and worship?” Even a cursory glance through the Psalter shows us that the content and occasion of the Psalms is rich and varied to say the least. There’s a theme that runs throughout the Psalms however, and that theme has to do with grounding Israel’s life and faith in the mighty acts of Yahweh on her behalf. The Psalms (even the Psalms of lament like Psalm 44) appear to be reflections on Yahweh’s past dealings with Israel, leading to an expression of hope that he will once again act with saving power. I know this is a massive generalisation, but the Psalms attempt to root Israel into a history in order to fire the faith of future hope in the present. 

Maybe I could put it like this: The Psalms remind Israel of who they are as a people, who their God is and how they came to be the people of that God, leading to the expression of faith in the present for the future faithfulness of Yahweh on their behalf.  

So how can we apply some of that to 21st Century corporate church worship?

 

  1.  History & Narrative: Our worship must have an element of history in it – God’s mighty acts on our behalf – and it must have a sense of story. Immediacy is wonderful but if we focus on the immediacy to the detriment of the story then we end up cheapening the immediacy.
  2. Jew & Gentile: I fear that we’re turning the gospel into a western religion and our worship practice is not helping. More and more I’m amazed that a 36-year-old man from England (me) is now sharing in the blessings of Israel’s God, an heir of the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Christ Jesus. I want to contend for a new sense of awe that I am in Christ Jesus today because Yahweh has been faithful to some promises he made to an old pagan man thousands of years ago! This, after all, is the mystery that Paul had revealed to him and the cause of his own awe (Ephesians 3.1-6).
  3. Deeper Roots & Taller Shoots: I think the deeper we help people to sink their roots into the story of Yahweh and Israel and the more we help them to place their own lives and faith in that context, the richer our worship will become and the greater our sense of awe.

 

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

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There’s Something Wrong with our Worship (Part 1)

Sunday morning.

The chairs are neatly arranged.

The band are rehearsing and getting the transition from song to song sorted. 

The AV operator is tapping the words of the latest ‘hit’ into a computer.

The meeting/gathering/service starts and the room gradually fills up.

Everyone is facing the front. 

Everyone is trying hard to get a dollop of heaven to drop into their lap.

 

I think the above has become such a familiar scene for most of us involved in church that we have ceased to really explore what we call our ‘worship’ and to think ‘critically’ about what we do and ask questions about our practices. I was probably the same until I started asking questions based on Colossians 3.16 and Ephesians 5.18-19.

So here we go with a few thoughts and observations based on those verses (observations on corporate worship based on scripture? Whatever next!) 

 

Which direction to you sing in (or “Horizontal v Vertical” worship)?

I noticed that in both of these passages Paul says that we speak or sing to one another. Immediately that raises questions for people because surely we sing to God, right? Right. But Paul also says that the church is a community in which Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3.11). The radical nature of Paul’s understanding of the church shines through here – Jesus is here, in the lives of the brothers and sisters who surround you. 

To put it another way, we don’t speak to God with Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with hatred, anger, unforgiveness and bitterness in our hearts to one another – we speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in our hearts to God.  

By speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs we are building one another up and glorifying the ‘Christ in you’ of Colossians 1.27 (a corporate term). When we do that with thankfulness in our hearts to God, we are participating in the richness of biblical, trinitarian worship. 

 

So what?

Well, quite a lot actually. For example, do you set out the seats on a Sunday morning in a way that makes it easy to see one another? Or is it all set up like a conference, a concert or a theatrical performance? When everyone is facing the front, the worship leader becomes the functional High Priest who leads us to God, representing us vicariously to the father with his songs and prayers (sacrifices), complete with skinny jeans and acoustic guitar.

When this happens, the body becomes redundant or lazy and we are sliding into unitarian worship where God is ‘up there’ and we somehow have to lasso him and drag him into the meeting.

 

Utter nonsense. 

Self-indulgent sentimentalism.

Individualism that fails to discern the body.

Mistaking the ‘vibe’ or the ‘sound’ with the immanence and actual presence of Jesus.

 

Christ is all and in all – right here, right now. 

 

That’ll do for now. I think I’m going to have to post a few times on this subject as I think I have quite a lot to say! 

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Re-evaluating Values so Theology Shapes Ecclesiology

I did a load of work recently on the values of the church I lead, York City Church. I’ll be dead honest, I find some of the terms and theories pertaining to church growth/life/mission/vision/values etc to be a little…no actually, a lot tedious. You could say I wasn’t exactly doing a (highly metaphorical) jig at the thought of sitting down to work on something that can often seem so abstract. So I was surprised to find that I had my own miniature renaissance on the subject of values as I got down to it.

Maybe I should say what I mean by values here, in a church context, just so you know what I’m not saying as much as what I am saying.

“Values are all about the way that you do the things that you do”

To quote the late John Wimber,

“Values affect what we think and, consequently, what we do. Our values are an intrinsic part of us, although we seldom think about them in a conscious fashion. They determine the ideas, principles and concepts a person or group can accept, assimilate, remember and transmit. They can be fallible and must be constantly revised and reviewed in the light of Scripture.”

A number of things surprised me and deeply encouraged me as I began to work on my understanding of the values of City Church. The first surprise was how much our studying, praying and preaching had informed the values that were crystallising on the screen in front of me. I saw and understood in a really fresh way that values flow out of theology and inform and shape our ecclesiology. Values and ecclesiology it turns out, should be lived theology

Abstract theological dogma don’t excite me very much (they do a little, but not a lot). I want to live my theology, because it is there to be lived. Words from God are not just there to tell us true facts about God (they are there to do that) but to invite us into a life of participation with God. Words from and about God lead to thoughts about God that are to be lived and loved and sung and worked out in community. So our theology (Theo logos – God words) becomes values when it is ingested and then lived out in the ways we live as a community of believers (ecclesiology).
 
I read an excerpt from a book called ‘With’ by an author called Skye Jethani recently. Jethani argues that Christianity is often lived as either a life for God or a life under God, but the bible calls us to a life with God. That’s nothing new in one sense; it’s good old Trinitarian theology – we participate in the Father’s communion with the Son by the Holy Spirit. But can you see how that theology is deeply grounded in relationship? A life with God is a life of participation with God, with others! Once again, what we believe about God must shape how we live and how we do what we do, or to put it in the terms already used, theology shapes values that then inform ecclesiology.
 
Eugene Peterson (you know, that guy who wrote the bible) writes beautifully about Paul’s use of the word axios or worthy in Ephesians 4. The image Peterson uses to describe what axios means is that of those old-style scales where you put weights on one side and then match the weight with whatever goods you are buying (or selling) on the other. Worthiness is what happens when the scales balance, or to put it in the context of this post, when there is no disconnect between what you believe and what you do with what you believe.
 
There’s no way I’m claiming that we’ve got it perfect, and values need to be constantly reevaluated in light of God’s word, but I took great joy in recognising that what the stuff emerging as our values was all rooted in the person and work of Jesus. I mean, it sounds so obvious doesn’t it? But honestly, it crept up on me. I didn’t begin by thinking, “Ah, now let me make us look really spiritual! Mwa-ha-ha!” Instead I realised with deep gratitude that, “It is God who is at work in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2.13).
 
Let me finish by urging you if you are in any kind of church leadership to get your thoughts about God right (theology) and then ingest and do them (values) so that the way you build (ecclesiology) is Christlike and honouring to God. I note with pain that a number of people I have come across recently have been badly burned in churches where, to all intents and purposes, the mission and vision is just like most other churches. What appears to be the tragedy in some churches is that they are zeroed in on the vision and the mission, with zero idea about how to treat one another in the process.
The last time I checked on Jesus’ values, loving God and one another were pretty high up on the agenda.
 
Do you need to reevaluate your values and therefore your ecclesiology in the light of your theology?
 
If you have never read any other Eugene Peterson books, start with ‘The Pastor’ and then try ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ before moving on to ‘Practice Resurrection.’
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The Electrifying Immediacy of “Free” and “Now”

N.T. Wright has said that Ben Meyer’s book, ‘The Aims of Jesus’ is head and shoulders above most books on Jesus that he has read. I have been discovering that Wright’s recommendation is true for myself (although the difference between my opinion and Wright’s may be the small matter of a few decades’ work and a few hundred books!) Meyer seems to have this ridiculous ability to articulate something that you just would not have said yourself, or in most cases, thought about Jesus.

So thanks to Ben Meyer (and indirectly to N.T. Wright) I am learning a lot about the radical and powerful nature of Jesus’ proclamation or announcement of the kingdom, or reign of God. I have found that as a pastor and preacher many of Meyer’s insights have been in serious ‘Gold Nugget’ territory – the section on Jesus’ teachings especially, but more on that another day – and are inspiring me to fresh faith and expectation for what God will do through his preached or proclaimed word.

Meyer says that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom or reign of God is in fact powerfully inaugurating the very thing proclaimed. Or to put it in a more Wright-ish way, Jesus is proclaiming a present reality, which is his own person, words and works. The reign of God is present in Jesus and is bursting out on a sleepy and unsuspecting world through his actions and teachings.

This is massively simplified, but for many of Jesus’ contemporaries, the kingdom of God was a future event that involved the restoration of Israel, vindication of the faithful and the defeat of God’s (and implicitly Israel’s) enemies. Groups such as the Scribes and the Pharisees were not (despite much ridiculous polemic chucked their way) advocating a way of becoming God’s people by ‘works’. The Scribes and the Pharisees were far more interested in defining what kind of faithfulness to God in the present would lead to future vindication for Israel when the reign or kingdom of God appeared.

And here is where the radical element of Jesus’ proclamation shines through.

“‘Gratuity’ and ‘present realisation’ – the electrifying immediacy of ‘free’ and ‘now’ – are probably the most distinctive accents in Jesus’ message.”(Ben Meyer, The Aims of Jesus, p.132)

The big surprise for the Scribes and the Pharisees was that the reign of God was ‘right here, right now’ in and through Jesus himself, through his words and through his actions. The anticipated future was breaking into the present and for those with eyes to see and ears to hear it was good news! Jesus was an enigma in the eyes of those self-appointed arbiters of what present-faithfulness-leading-to-future-vindication looked like.

The motley crew that Jesus gathered were in fact becoming in the present the very people that the Scribes and the Pharisees were hoping they themselves would become in the future – the restored and renewed people of God. There is irony here alright. It turns out that the professionally holy were missing the very thing they were longing for while simultaneously lambasting Jesus for hanging out with ‘expendables’, as those very expendables entered the kingdom of God ahead of them!

As I begin to wind this bad boy up, think of the people who frequent your local church. Church is a messy business, full of strange subcultures and bizarre preferences and politics. Church is a right old motley crew of liars and legalists, sinners and smart-alecs. Church can be on one hand a display of God’s splendour and on the other a real damp squib – promising so much and yet delivering so little. Nevertheless, the reign of God is present where broken and messed up people gladly cling to Jesus by the fingertips of their faith.

I find incredible hope and courage growing in me when I meditate on the electrifying immediacy of ‘free’ and ‘now’ that were the hallmarks of Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God – he preached the reign of God and he did the reign of God and those actions were sufficient to bring a renewed people to birth, however messy they looked. ‘Free’ and ‘now’ work themselves out as ‘without qualification’ and ‘in these people’ in every local church (or is it conceivable that Jesus gathered followers who were less messy than those you worship and pray with week by week?) Let’s think twice before we try to help Jesus with a cack-handed attempt at cleaning up the mess in his church, shall we?

Here’s what I’m going to do.

Here’s my very rambling New-Church-Year’s Resolution!

I am going to give myself to proclaiming the reign of God in Jesus the Messiah through the preached word and believe that, in the words of classic Brit Pop group Dodgy, “If it’s good enough for you [King Jesus], it’s good enough for me!” Then I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for the green shoots of renewed humanity poking their frail little heads up through the weeds and through the dirt, and when I see them, I’m going to celebrate them and do all in my power to help them blossom and bloom.

There, that’s a big blog to open my account with, and that is all for now. See you next time I guess.

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