The Gift and Its Obligations

Many Christians have trouble with the paradox in Paul whereby salvation is both a gift and involves obligations. Salvation as divine gift makes sense, but the demand for human response raises the specter of “works righteousness.”

Some solutions to this apparent contradiction diminish the human agent (“it’s not really you acting, but the Spirit”) in some way that does violence to the character of Paul’s texts. Others stress the passivity of the human agent’s reception of the gift in ways that overshadow the attendant obligations.

I suspect that this is an ongoing theological problem because of the conceptual frames in which we wrestle with the tension between divine and human action (e.g., human action must in some way marginalize divine action).

The relation of divine and human action is one of many issues riding under the surface throughout the essays in the fascinating volume Apocalyptic Paul. Reckoning with this tension (between divine and human action) within Paul’s apocalyptic frame of thought opens up fruitful avenues, and I found John Barclay’s essay illuminating in this regard.

Apocalyptic Paul

He notes that Paul shows no reticence to speak of gospel obligations inherent in the divine gift. This is so because believers are made alive from the dead and brought into an alternative cosmic sphere of existence. Their participation in resurrection life is a participation in Christ, a field or matrix of divine power and presence that is also an enjoyment of new creation life. Paul can, therefore, speak of believers as responsible agents and of their obligation to obey without worrying that he’s lapsing into some sort of monergism or “works righteousness.”

I’ve been thinking about pursuing this further in future posts, arguing that for Paul reception of the divine gift is not merely passive. Reception of the gift is embodied through obedience to the new lordship of Christ in his reign of grace. To receive the gift is to live into the fullness of the new life granted by God in Christ. For now, however, I’ll just cite this paragraph from Barclay’s essay:

The theological logic of the Pauline imperative is to live the life that has been given. Paul is not requiring them to turn theory into practice, or possibility into reality: joined to Christ in baptism they really and actually share his risen life. Nor is he requiring them to turn an “objective” truth into a “subjective” reality since they are “alive to God” in every dimension of their subjectivity by participation in Christ. Nor is the imperative the supplement to the indicative in the sense that something incomplete has to be completed in further degrees. The theological logic of indicative and imperative is in one sense much simpler than all of these inadequate conceptualizations. They have been given a new life which can be lived only in activity and practice: this “newness of life” is essentially and not just contingently a matter of peripatein (6:4). Practice, action, and obedience are the mode of this new life. In every move they make, believers are either living this new life or living according to the flesh (8:13), the latter still possible because, for as long as they live in the realm of mortality they can fall back into the force-field of sin and death and repudiate the power that tugs them towards life. The imperative is thus to practice (and thereby demonstrate) the new life given, which cannot be said to be active within them unless it is acted out by them” (pp. 74-75, emphasis added).


Making the Stranger Human

This is excerpted from Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times this past Sunday. I found his account of his friend Andy Bachman compelling on several counts, especially the persistent effort to resist the temptation to give in to fear and hatred:

THERE are good people and bad leaders the world over, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Plenty of Israelis and Palestinians work to build bridges, but their voices are lost in the stampede of zealots schooled in hatred and cynics adept in the manipulation of fear for the consolidation of power.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I talked to Andy Bachman, an American rabbi and friend. He is just back from two weeks in Israel. “I hear vile stuff,” he said. “My job is hope.” Never, he believes, has it been more critical for moderate Israelis and Palestinians to raise their voices in common cause. If Hamas is to be disarmed, as it must be, the only way in the end is to win the hearts and minds of other Palestinians through economic progress and justice.

Bachman, reflecting on the war’s moral dilemmas, cited the biblical story of Samuel. As Samuel ages, people see that his bribe-taking sons are not leadership material. They ask him to find them a king. Samuel consults God, who laments that “they have rejected Me, that I should not be King over them.” If the people only followed God’s law, they would not need a ruler. Samuel warns the people of the future predations of any king, but they will not be swayed. They insist “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” In the end, God acquiesces.

For Bachman, the tension between living in a divine world of perfect justice and the violent human realm of imperfect choices is captured here. Zionism was just that: the desire to be “like all the nations,” a normal people with a leader — but that also means, in Bachman’s words, “making pained and sometimes horrible choices.” He said, “As a parent, I mourn so greatly the loss of innocent life. And equal to that feeling is one of horror and shame that Hamas ran a campaign knowing that would happen, making it part of their strategy.”

In Israel, Bachman works with Rebecca Bardach on a project called Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. It now runs five bilingual schools with 1,100 students, children learning Hebrew and Arabic and, above all, how coexistence works. The aim is to grow to as many as 15 integrated bilingual schools over the next decade.

Like individual voices of conscience, such undertakings seem flimsy beside walls, blockades, bullets, bombs, rockets and the relentless process of separation and division that pulls Jews and Palestinians apart. They are flimsy but no less important for that. They make the stranger human. They are interceptors of fear. The most useful commodity for the merchants of war and hatred is fear.


The Importance of Redemptive Community

Susan Eastman, in her chapter in Apocalyptic Paul, provides an excellent reminder for Westerners that salvation is not found in life-in-community or corporate identity. We are in a very different world from the world(s) in which the Bible was written, and one of the main differences is how we conceive of ourselves.

Apocalyptic Paul

Yet it’s not that communal identity is the solution for individual identity. Redemptive community dynamics are the solution to corrupted community dynamics.

Eastman shares this conversation with an African woman she met on a cross-country flight:

She told me she had immigrated to the United States. I asked how she found American culture and society, in comparison with her own, and she said that she much preferred it. That surprised me a bit, so I inquired further: don’t you find our culture isolated and individualistic, in comparison with a more communal society? I added that I always had been impressed by the well-known African saying, “I am because we are, and because we are, I am.” “I hate that saying!” she exclaimed. “Don’t talk to me about community! I cam here to get away from all that! Here, I create myself; no one tells me who I am or what I can do. I want autonomy. I celebrate American individualism! I love it! I could never go back.”

Life in community is not always good news!

Eastman continues, in a footnote:

As my colleague Esther E. Acolatse has written about pastoral care with African women, “what is termed ‘relational ethos’ benefits only some of the people” . . . She continues, “[T]he need of the female for connectedness is seen as essential for the survival of the self, and yet this need in certain cases also becomes the source of the death to the self.” Connection may mean death, not life. Acolatse is speaking about a particular gendered cultural experience, but surely her observations can be applied more widely; in any community, social harmony in effect may be maintained by an unequal distribution of burdens and goods. Furthermore, corporate solidarity can issue in violence every bit as much as individualism can. The idea of self-in-relation per se, let alone communal solidarity or corporate identity, is no panacea for humanity’s ills.


God’s Rule Brings Conflict

This passage from Mark as Story wonderfully captures how and why Jesus inevitably conflicts with those in power:

“ . . . God’s rule engenders conflict because God is acting outside the traditional channels of power. From the point of view of the authorities in Mark’s story, God works from the established center in Jerusalem. By contrast, for Mark, God’s rule begins from the periphery, from the edges. The pardon of sins that took place in the temple now appears in Galilee. The interpretation of the law that emanated from Jerusalem now occurs in the village of Capernaum. The authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin council is now assumed by a woodworker from Nazareth. The rule of God begins among people of little social consequence—not among the rulers but among the people, not with the so-called righteous but with the sinners. So, Jesus comes in conflict with authorities.

In all of this, the rule of God generates conflict because it ruptures the conventional conception of God and creates a new understanding of God. Instead of guarding boundaries, God now crosses boundaries. Instead of remaining in the temple, God breaks out to become available everywhere (signified by the tearing of the curtain). Instead of withdrawing from defilement, God spreads holiness. Instead of working from the center, God works from the margins. God sends an anointed one who does not dominate but who undergoes persecution and death in the service of others. In all of these matters, the authorities are trapped inside the old wineskins of their conventional views, unable to see the new wine in their midst. By judging the new wine by the categories of old wineskins, they destroy the wine—and they also end up destroying the wineskins as well.”

Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie, Mark as Story, p. 79.


Interpretive Patience

As I’ve been finalizing syllabuses for the fall semester and putting together lecture notes on interpretation, these lines from Ernst Käsemann’s Romans commentary have been rolling around in my head:

The impatient, who are concerned only about results or practical application, should leave their hands off exegesis. They are of no value for it, nor, when rightly done, is exegesis of any value for them (p. viii).

E Kasemann

 


Hiking Israel

I’ve just returned from a ten day trip to Israel with some folks from GRTS. We traveled with a larger group from Crossroads Bible Church and their pastor, Rod Van Solkema, led the trip.

Dead Sea at Sunrise

Dead Sea at Sunrise

He wanted us to learn the land with our feet, which meant loads of hiking. It was an absolute blast and a thorough soul-refreshment in every way.

We hiked for several days in the desert, including climbing Mt. Timna, the snake path up to Masada, and the mountains above Qumran.

About to Climb the Snake Path at Masada

About to Climb the Snake Path at Masada

After the Climb up Masada

After the Climb up Masada

Climbing Mt. Timna (or, Making Our Way to Mordor)

Climbing Mt. Timna (or, Making Our Way to Mordor)

On Mt. Timna. That's a heart-stopping sheer drop just behind me...

On Mt. Timna. That’s a heart-stopping sheer drop just behind me…

Cave 8 at Qumran

Cave 8 at Qumran

High Above Qumran -- that's the visitor's center in the middle and some of the caves just beneath it

High Above Qumran — that’s the visitor’s center in the middle and some of the caves just beneath it

In the North, we scaled Mt. Arbel and Mt. Carmel, along with a number of other places.

Climbing Mt. Arbel, Overlooking the Sea of Galilee

Climbing Mt. Arbel, Overlooking the Sea of Galilee

Doing so much walking and hiking gave us an excellent grasp of the geography of the land — where everything sits in relation to other places. It also allowed me to eat as much hummus and warm pita as I wanted (and falafel and shwarma and shnitzel, among other things) and still lose a few pounds!

Discussing Mark 3:1-6 at the Synagogue in Capernaum

Discussing Mark 3:1-6 at the Synagogue in Capernaum

John Hilber and I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at 5:30 in the morning and had the place to ourselves fo

John Hilber and I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at 5:30 in the morning and had the place to ourselves for nearly an hour

My colleague, John Hilber, and I seriously enjoyed the time with our students, along with the Crossroads group with whom we traveled. And we’re thrilled about the outrageously wonderful opportunity for GRTS students to travel to Israel made possible by our partnership with GTI Tours.

The GRTS Crew

The GRTS Crew


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 7

Cross-shaped leaders differ from worldly leaders in that they do not manipulate others.  This involves both means and ends.

Cruciform leaders have ultimate aims to bless others, to give them life, to see to it that God’s goodness, love, and grace are always arriving into others’ lives.

Worldly leaders, on the other hand, have selfish ends and will use others to achieve those ends.  Other people, therefore, are means to my own ends, and others are valuable to me only insofar as they serve my purposes.

Christian leaders must avoid treating people as means to other ends.  In addition to this, however, leaders can fall into the trap of having good ultimate intentions for others, but using manipulative means to get there.

This happens in a variety of ways, but I’ve seen it happen in attempts at conflict-resolution.

Seeking to resolve a broken relationship is a well-motivated desire, but it’s possible to approach such situations manipulatively.  We might find ourselves plotting and planning how we’ll graciously expose the other’s fault; we anticipate responses and prepare counter-arguments.

It’s as if we’re trying to cut off all routes of escape.  We want to prove our point, to enclose the other person in a well-argued and airtight case that proves they’re wrong and we’re right.  We’re doing this, of course, in love.

Why do we think such an approach is going to end well?  This usually provokes an angry response from someone who feels trapped and manipulated.  Their response might frustrate us and invite an angry counter-response.  Before you know it, things are going down a destructive road.

Such strategies reveal that our aims are not to bless and give life but to triumph—to resolve the conflict on our terms.  This is very manipulative.

This is very different from preparing carefully to approach another person in humility, to invite from that person an explanation of how they see things.  And we must be completely willing to listen and have our own understanding corrected.

Cruciform leaders approach others with cruciform, non-threatening postures of welcome, and work hard to develop skills associated with peace-making (James 3:13-18).  We’d do well to state up-front just how we see things but note that we very well may be wrong.

Manipulation in ministry relationships comes in so many different forms–I’ve only spoken of one.  We must be concerned to relate to others with humility, always pursuing the goal of communal flourishing.


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 6

Cruciform leadership is marked by a determination to live authentically and relate honestly.  Jesus-shaped, cruciform leaders don’t hide their weaknesses, inadequacies, and failures.  They aren’t self-promoting, they don’t seek power, and they don’t trumpet their strengths.

Their ultimate goal is the blessing of others, the arrival of God’s transforming grace and overpowering love into their lives.  Their goal is not to appear ultra-competent and amazing, but to serve others.

Worldly leadership, on the other hand, is consumed with image-consciousness.  Worldly leaders manipulate situations in order to put the best face on things.  They try to control how people see them and what others think of them.

This pursuit leads to denial of one’s failures and even to deceiving others in order to keep from being seen as a failure.  This is serious inauthenticity.

While such leadership postures are tempting, they are ultimately destructive in so very many ways.  Such an approach breeds anxiety.  If I portray myself as better and more successful than others, I’ll always be worried that people might encounter the “real me”—the one who struggles with sin the way everyone else does; the one filled with self-doubt; the one who needs the help of others; the one who isn’t always up to the task.

This can also be crushing when failure actually occurs.  If a person weaves a public image and takes great pains to hide behind it, there’s almost no way to recover when the “real me” is revealed.

Further, such an approach discourages others from participating in ministry.  People who are honest with themselves will be too afraid to fail if only the super-competent or “experts” are qualified to serve.

Cruciform leadership resists such strategies.

Paul portrays the anti-image character of cruciform leadership in a powerfully counter-cultural passage.

…but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.  For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me (2 Cor. 12:5-6).

If he talked about his strengths and his mind-blowing experiences, he wouldn’t at all be exaggerating.  He’d be speaking the truth.  But he resists this because he doesn’t want the Corinthians to think of him as a bigger deal than he is.  He refuses to construct an image.

His ultimate goal is their blessing, their communal flourishing, their enjoyment of the goodness of God in Christ by the Spirit.

Cruciform leaders refuse to try to control what people think of them.  They don’t cultivate an image.  They don’t try to make others imagine that more is true of them than matches reality.

Such leadership frees others to participate in ministry without fear of failure.  I’ll never forget the first time this hit me.  I have heard preaching my whole life and have hardly ever heard preachers relay anecdotes in which they don’t come off as spiritual superstars.

When I was in seminary, I had a pastor named Rick.  Rick was a great speaker and decisive leader.  He was impressive in so many ways, but was also unconcerned with his image.

After returning from a ministry trip to South Africa, he began his first Sunday back with an anecdote about his airplane ride.  He said that he was so jacked up to be going on this trip that he initiated an evangelistic conversation with the two people sitting in his row.  After an initial back-and-forth, Rick said that out of nowhere his brain locked up and he couldn’t think of a response to one of their questions.  He sat there tongue-tied and gape-mouthed as they stared at him, awaiting a response.

Mortified, he slunk back in his chair for the torturously long plane ride to South Africa.

I’ll never forget how that made everyone feel.  We all looked up to Rick and thought he could hardly put a foot wrong in ministry.  But his anecdote reminded everyone that he was just like us and that it’s okay to fail.

He would tell his ministry interns later to seldom be the hero of your preaching anecdotes.  I’ve never forgotten that.  That’s one way of embodying honesty and authenticity.  It resonates with people who are honest with themselves and are tired of a superficial culture dominated by inauthenticity.

Cruciform leaders aren’t paralyzed with fear that others will see their shortcomings, weaknesses, and inadequacies.

Authentic ministry is built on the truth.  Cruciform leadership cultivates authenticity and invites others to develop similar habits of truth-speaking and truthful modes of life.


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 5

I’ve been contrasting Jesus-shaped, cruciform leadership with worldly leadership.  Key texts that shape my reflections are Phil. 2:5-11 and Mark 10:37-45.

Worldly leaders are captivated by a craving for more and more influence.  Cruciform leaders, on the other hand, are content with current responsibilities given by God and seek to grow in faithfulness.

I had defined cruciform, Jesus-shaped leadership as an unrelenting commitment to the delivery of the love and grace of God into the lives of others (or, the life of another), and taking the initiative to see to it that this happens.

Cruciform leaders sense a compelling call to the delivery of God’s transforming grace and redeeming love to others.  The scope of ministry may involve one’s own family.  It may extend beyond that to a one-to-one discipleship relationship.  Or, it may involve leadership in larger groups.  Size doesn’t matter.

In any and every case, cruciform leaders are focused on faithfulness to the task.  This involves self-sacrificially serving others, getting to know those to whom we minister.  Cruciform leaders take the initiative to cultivate relationships of mutuality and authenticity shaped and oriented by the love and grace of God.

I described worldly leadership as a desire to increase in prestige, status, and influence and a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve personal advancement.

Worldly leadership manifests itself in the church by a lack of contentment with current ministry circumstances.  Worldly leaders desire more and more influence.  They are always looking beyond their current scope of ministry to bigger and better and more.  Such pursuits are incompatible with faithfulness in ministry.

This form of leadership has a corrosive effect on one’s soul, one’s ministry partnerships, and one’s family.

Worldly leaders are captive to destructively competitive impulses.  They envision the ministry “successes” of others as losses for themselves.  They cannot delight in the giftedness of others because they are threatened by them.  Good things happening in other churches or ministries are provocations to anger and resentment.

Worldly leaders grow anxious when they are not recognized and praised.  They are jealous when the gifts of others are noted or praised.

A worldly leadership orientation also has a destructive effect on one’s family.  Ministers who seek greater influence cannot afford to spend time cultivating rich and joyful relationships at home.  Those take time and effort.  They are messy, complicated.  Our families see our faults and failures.  Fruitful family life demands relationships of mutuality in order to flourish.  That means we must give ourselves fully to our families, blessing them and being blessed by them.  That means we work hard to cultivate the skills of forgiving and asking for forgiveness.

Worldly leadership draws us away from our families, seducing us to see it as far easier to be out there “ministering” where people don’t see our faults and failures.  We can get by on charm and surface encounters.  Such behaviors are exposed as obviously hypocritical at home.  Families can’t run on such relational shallowness.  They demand serious love and regular reconciliation.

Worldly leaders see their families, therefore, as obstacles to greater influence.  Spouses and children who demand my time are taking away from my efforts to grow the reach of my ministry!  They’re in the way!

Too many pastors have given in to such worldly and destructive temptations and have sacrificed their spouses and children on the altar of growing a ministry or extending the reach of their influence.

Whatever influence they might have may prove either ephemeral or destructive.  In speaking about leaders among God’s people, Paul asks, “if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church?”

Cruciform leaders discern the worldly lures of bigger and better and more as the destructive and soul-destroying corruptive ideologies that they are.  They resist such temptations and their associated practices.  They take joy in their relationships, serving faithfully, loving others and receiving their love in the name of the One who gave his life for the church.


Cross-Shaped Leadership, Pt. 4

Cruciform leaders do not view people as the means to achieve other goals.  The people to whom we minister are the goal.  The whole point of Jesus-shaped leadership is to take the initiative to see that God’s grace and love arrive into the lives of others.

Christian leaders are servants of others on behalf of God, so people are the point—not my goals, plans, vision, or ambitions.

This may be obvious, but there is a vocabulary set used among ministry leaders that very subtly perverts and corrupts our vision for cruciform ministry.

We talk about “results,” or we want our ministries to be “effective.”  We look for ministry strategies that “work.”

When we talk like this, we reveal that we are envisioning something bigger than or beyond the people to whom we minister.  We subtly become the servants of that other thing and we look at the people as the means to get somewhere else.

This is one way that pastors’ hearts function as idol factories.

When we set our hearts on certain goals and ends, we can become very frustrated at our people when they don’t perform the way we want them to.  When we’re not seeing the results we expected, we put pressure on people, demanding more from them.

When we do this, we are no longer delivery agents of God’s love, mercy, and transforming grace.  We begin embodying in our churches the reality of a very harsh, exacting God who demands performance and greater effectiveness.

Pastors may find themselves berating and scolding their churches.  They may lament that there are so many things the church could be doing if only the people would just “get on board.”

These are signs of worldly leadership.

There is no greater end in ministry than cultivating a flourishing community for the renewal of the people to whom and with whom we minister.

Cruciform ministry leaders are patient with people, ministering to them in love.  Cruciform leaders are careful to avoid being seduced by worldly values that fly under the banners of “efficiency,” “effectiveness,” and “results.”

Cruciform pastors must constantly check their motives, aims, and ambitions for their churches.  They must constantly put off the temptation to manipulate people so that goals may be met.

Christian ministers must resist putting pressure on people and subtly turning churches into institutions that oppress.  It takes strong leadership to cultivate flourishing communities that provide rest, relief, hope, joy, and life for people worn out and broken by the world.

Cross-shaped leaders remember that people are the point.  They are the end.  They are never the means.


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