If a person really has the gift of teaching, then he will communicate well. As he’s communicating the content of the passage of Scripture before him, he will never make a mistake in interpretation or an error in communication strategy, because how could the divinely given gift of teaching go wrong? Is the Holy Spirit working through him, or isn’t He? If it turns out he was wrong on a content issue, or he just screwed up the delivery beyond repair, then clearly the Holy Spirit wasn’t at work, and the guy doesn’t really have the gift of teaching.
And let’s face it, most of what passes for “teaching” today is pretty weak stuff. I mean, we know what real, Spirit-directed teaching looked like, right? Paul’s speeches in Acts, his address to the Ephesian elders — that’s powerful stuff. How many sermons do you hear today that measure up to that standard? None, that’s how many. You know why? Because it’s not the Spirit’s gift of teaching at all, that’s why; it’s just a guy saying some stuff that occurred to him in the study.
Reasonable, yes? How can it be flawed and imperfect if the Holy Spirit is the one who gives the gifts? God gives perfect gifts; says so right there in James 1.
So today, we have folks who claim to teach, but they make mistakes, and even occasionally have to issue retractions because they realize they were wrong about something they said earlier. They don’t measure up to the power and vibrancy of the biblical examples of teaching, at all. It would appear, in fact, that the biblical gift of teaching is not being dispensed by the Spirit today.
Of course this is all hogwash. But isn’t it exactly the standard that many of us apply to the gift of prophesy? Why is that gift different?
As I’ve made my shift out of cessationism, several people have expressed concern that perhaps I’ve grown tired of the hard work of biblical exegesis and teaching, and I’m hunting for something more sensational and showy.
And they’re soooo, like, totally right. I never really liked reading and studying, and this is my big chance to fulfill my childhood dream of being a circus ringmaster for Jesus…oh, wait. No, that’s someone else.
For any position that people are committed to, there’s a story that they tell themselves about why people are committed to it, why others aren’t, and most importantly, why people give up on it. A previously committed member of the group who gives up and walks away casts doubt on the whole enterprise, and you have to tell yourself something about why that happened. There are usually a few stock explanations, and while sometimes those explanations are outright lies, usually they have become the stock explanations precisely because they’re often true. Once the stock explanations are in place, of course you turn to them before you try any other theory.
“Okay, Tim, I get it. You’re not really the ringmaster type, are you? But surely you must have seen some amazing things if you’re changing your mind about all this.”
Not really. Some prophetic words that really struck home with me, a few things like that. But I haven’t seen the dead raised or an eye regrown or a broken bone healed or anything like that.
“Seriously, you now believe all this stuff happens, but you’ve never seen it for yourself?”
Well, yes, actually, that’s exactly right. I have never seen a New-Testament-quality miracle. I changed my belief based on Scripture and reliable history. I have a couple of good friends who have seen some of these miracles, and even benefitted from them, but I’ve never seen or done one myself. Yet I now believe they happen. The truth of it is simple: I want to see God at work, however He is pleased to work. As far as I can tell from the NT, the range of what God is willing to do is considerably broader than I used to think, but my faith has a real impact on how God is willing to work. So I’m believing God for all of it, and waiting to see what He will do. In the meantime, there’s a gap between what Scripture teaches me to expect and my own experience.
It’s not like we don’t know how to handle that gap. When I experience a gap between the biblical teaching on chastity and my own experience, I don’t develop a doctrine that allows me to rationalize my lack of experience with biblical chastity. I humble myself before God, confess my sin, pray for His mercy and deliverance, and then — with authority! — call on the power of the risen Christ to rebuke my lustful thoughts, transform my heart and mind, and drive any demonic influences far from me. I speak the truth that I am a living sacrifice, a vessel for sanctification and honor, a son of the Most High, and I rebuke the temptation. Jesus already purchased the victory over sin; all things are mine in Christ. This victory is already mine; Jesus has already paid for it. I tell God I want it, and I don’t stop telling Him how much I want it until He gives it to me. None of my cessationist friends would have much of a problem with this.
So what am I to do when I experience a gap between Scripture and experience when it comes to the miraculous? Same thing, I would think. Sure, I could gin up a doctrine that allows me to rationalize my lack of experience with God fulfilling His promises, but why would I?
Why go through all that when instead I could confess that I have never believed God for these things, admit my lack of faith, and repent of it? And having repented, I now pursue a new course of action. “Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” So there it is — I’m desiring. Every time I drive past the Broadway-Hampden overpass, I pray for miraculous gifting. What will He give me? I don’t know. But He told me to desire, and I do. He told me that I don’t have because I don’t ask, so I’m asking. He told me that if I ask for something, I should keep asking all the time, like a poor widow seeking justice from an unjust judge. So I do that. Why? Because it’s obedient. What will God do? I can’t wait to find out.
I gave all the caveats for this post in my previous post, so I won’t repeat everything. Briefly, I am giving an account of why I am no longer a cessationist. I am not attacking anybody’s ministry and I am not setting out to criticize anyone. Some critique of cessationism and its proponents will come up inevitably along the way, but I can’t help that. I’m not trying to hurt anyone; I’m just telling about what God has done in my life.
I was raised in a cessationist tradition. The first thing you have to understand about cessationism is that it’s not monolithic. You have some guys that believe the modern-day phenomenon that Pentecostals call the gift of tongues is a demonic manifestation. You have some who view it as a natural expression of joy — but not the biblical gift of tongues. Every cessationist I know believes that God continues to answer prayer, and all of them believe that miraculous healings continue to occur today, but some will pray passionately and publicly for a healing, while others would feel that it’s sinful (or at least unwise) to “test God” in that way. Some cessationists have a deeply personal relationship with God, believing that they receive daily guidance from Him through impressions, inner leading, even dreams; others believe God only speaks through the Bible today (and sometimes, the same person will hold both points of view — about which more later). The common thread is the belief that certain miraculous gifts were given at the very beginning of the Church, for the purpose of establishing and validating the Church, and that shortly after the beginning, God ceased to dispense those gifts. Pretty much everybody includes apostleship, prophecy, healing, and tongues among the now-defunct gifts. Some would also include discernment, words of knowledge, words of wisdom. Some would say that these gifts absolutely ceased. Others don’t expect to find these gifts operating in the heart of Christendom, but expect to see them still in operation in situations analogous to the first century — like, for example, when a missionary makes first contact with a stone-age tribe deep in the jungle.
So in a sense, one can speak of “cessationisms” rather than “cessationism;” there’s enough variation to warrant it. The particular instance of cessationism that led to my resignation was RMBC&S’s teaching statement on the issue, which reads, “The miraculous gifts (apostles, prophets, healings, miracles including a word of wisdom or word of knowledge, and tongues) were temporary in nature as signs to unbelieving Jews and as a validation of the New Testament message and its messengers at the initial stage of the church.” I want to make clear that the RMBC&S statement is an instance of the sort of thing I’m rejecting, but this is not simply a matter of slightly different framing of the same basic sentiment. I am rejecting all cessationisms, root and branch.
I have always been an exegete at heart. If I am going to get up in front of people and say “Thus says the Lord…” I want to be very certain that the Lord has, in fact, said it. This goes back very early for me — I remember our family having knock-down-drag-out fights in the middle of family devotions over whether the passage at hand actually said this or that. This didn’t happen every week, but it wasn’t a particular rarity, either, and on those occasions my parents did not use their parental authority to end the debate — it was understood that the Word was the authority, we were all equally in submission to it, and it was vitally important that we manage to come to an understanding of what it said, so that we might obey it well. (These debates also formed in me the quality that several very frustrated folks have described as “not taking correction well.” It is in fact nothing of the kind — it is a gut-level understanding that you can’t win an exegetical argument with age or political authority any more than you can drive a nail with a kitchen sponge; just the wrong tool for the job. But for guys who are accustomed to doing that, it’s hard to take when a younger man refuses to play along. Oh well.)
Cessationism had always made theological and practical sense to me, and I had been taught that 1 Corinthians 13 was the go-to passage for an exegetical validation. This lasted until seminary. I was in my second or third year of seminary — I can’t remember which — and I had occasion to work through 1 Corinthians 13 in Greek. Ironically, the things I noticed are sitting right there on the surface of the English text, but I’d just never read the passage closely enough before to notice them. Certain gifts will cease — says so right there. But when? It certainly says nothing about the completion of the canon. What it does say is that these gifts will cease when knowledge is full rather than partial, when vision is accurate rather than dim, and when full maturity is reached. I didn’t think to pursue the implications of this at the time (that came later); I was so stunned at what the passage didn’t say that I barely noticed what it did say.
Surprised at what I found, I hunted down my Greek professor and asked if I had missed something. He grinned and said no — the passage does not, in fact, say what most cessationists think it says. He suggested to me that a case for cessationism would be better based on the historical evidence that the sign gifts did, indeed, pass out of existence in the first century, and that the modern manifestations that go by the name of tongues or prophecy fall woefully short of the biblical descriptions of tongues and prophecy. That made sense to me, and I went with it. I did, however, continue to want a genuinely exegetical case for the doctrine, and I continued to search for one.
Long story short, I didn’t find one, and I looked at a lot of cessationist arguments. Hebrews 1:1-2 certainly does say that God spoke through prophets in the past, but it doesn’t preclude prophets after Christ — and in fact, there were a number of them, as the book of Acts attests. Hebrews 2:3-4 tells us what purpose the signs and wonders serve, but never says they stopped. Likewise, Ephesians 2:20 says that the apostles and prophets are foundational, but it doesn’t say they have no continuing role (it also says that Christ is the chief cornerstone, and I’m pretty sure we all agree that He has a continuing role.) Even if 2 Corinthians 12:12 says that signs and wonders and mighty works were the signs of an apostle (questionable, but let it pass for the moment), it never says that nobody else did signs, wonders, and mighty works — and in fact, many others did, starting with the 70 that Jesus sent out, and continuing into Stephen, Philip, Ananias, and others. There were certainly people who were not healed miraculously — Paul had his thorn in the flesh (if that was a physical ailment), Timothy had his weak stomach, Trophimus was sick enough that he couldn’t leave Miletus with Paul, Epaphroditus almost died, and so on — but that didn’t mean that healing wasn’t happening; it just meant that not everybody was healed.
Now, the theology of cessationism made sense to me, but increasingly it looked like the theology of Calvinism: internally self-consistent and well worked out as a system, but utterly lacking in exegetical support for the key assumptions. In other words, something that could be true, but seemed to lack the necessary biblical evidence to establish for sure that it really was true. That made it an interesting speculation, but clearly not in “thus saith the Lord” territory. Knowing that the exegetical evidence was woefully insufficient and the theological formulations were speculative at best, I fell back on what, to me, was an obvious point of historical fact: the miraculous gifts seemed to have died out at the end of the first century, and some explanation for the (lack of) phenomena was required. If the explanation turned out to be a bit shaky and incomplete, there was still the brute fact that signs and wonders of the biblical type didn’t continue happening, which made cessationism (in some form) seem pretty likely.
At the same time all this was going on, I became friends with a Pentecostal pastor serving in Orange County, CA. You have to understand, I’d known some charismatic folks back in high school, and those guys pretty much confirmed every stereotype I’d ever been taught — they were flaky, emotional, undependable, unwilling to plan because they wanted to “let the Spirit lead,” which in practice meant doing whatever stupid thing came into their heads at the moment, unreflective, and uninterested in serious study of the Scriptures (again, they would rather “let the Spirit lead” than read the Bible — apparently it never occurred to them that He might be leading them to do just that.) So I’d steered clear of charismatic folks ever since, but this guy was wise, a serious student of the Bible, loving, down to earth — in fact, he was a godly man to whom I could turn for advice in ministry matters, with good results. It was news to me that you could be charismatic and not be a nutcase.
Sidebar: Many of the people who were responsible for my prejudice in the first place will admit, when pressed, that they know a few sane charismatics. However, they were only too happy to have me think that all charismatics were nuts, and never took the time to nuance that generalization by making the appropriate qualifications. This is a violation of the Golden Rule and the Ninth Commandment, which is to say, a major ethical problem. Just sayin’.
I remember that about this time, I found myself in a debate with a Calvary Chapel pastor over the gifts of the Spirit. I articulated my historical/practical defense, and he was underwhelmed. I remember his response like it was yesterday: “So what you’re really saying is just that you’ve never seen the gifts in operation?” he asked.
“No, no,” I said, “I’m saying that they just don’t happen after the first century.” Shortly thereafter, he disengaged from the conversation. At the time I felt like it was because we’d reached a stalemate. Looking back, I see that he realized I wasn’t ready to hear the counter-argument that he would have made. Being ready to hear that would take more than just a shift in my thinking: I needed God to do some work in my life as well.
God did that work by moving me to Englewood, CO. In Englewood, I encountered something I’d never seen — or even heard about — before. The evangelical pastors of the city would gather and pray for one another. I don’t mean one of those “prayer luncheons” where you eat a big meal and then spend 2 minutes praying at the end. I mean they’d get together for an hour, check in to see who needed prayer for what, and then wade in and spend 45 minutes of the hour in prayer for each other, for each other’s churches (as well as those churches not represented in the gathering) and for the city. These men were godly, wise pastors who genuinely cared for each other. They talked about how there’s really One Church in Englewood (even if it happens to meet in 24 different locations most weeks) — and they really meant it, and lived it. In order to show that to their congregations, they rented out the high school football stadium once a year and had a joint church service. The first year, there were 8 churches participating. This past year, 14 churches canceled their Sunday morning services to go to the stadium and meet together. In Englewood, I saw John 17 incarnated in ways I’d never seen before. These were the men I wanted to be when I grew up. As I got to know them better, I slowly realized that almost to a man, they were charismatic. Even the Dutch Reformed guy and the Anglican priest.
I had settled in my mind years ago that if you were going to practice something that you would call the charismatic gifts today, then obviously you had to follow the biblical guidelines for them — tongues must be interpreted, prophecies must be judged, and so on. I had never seen a charismatic church even try to implement those guidelines. Among these guys, it was a no-brainer: of course you had to follow the biblical guidelines. So my stereotypes of what it meant to be charismatic were shattering left and right. I recognized that I was seeing a practice of charismatic Christianity that had heard the cessationist criticisms of the various excesses practiced in the name of the Holy Spirit, taken the biblical content of the criticism to heart, and responded to it. In short, I was seeing maturity. Of course I was still a cessationist at this point, but I found myself forced to admit that these guys took the Bible seriously, and didn’t use charismatic phenomena as an excuse to dodge faithfulness to Scripture.
Speaking of faithfulness to Scripture, I was beginning to develop some biblical problems of my own. As I continued to investigate, the lack of exegetical evidence for cessationism became the least of my concerns: I was increasingly finding a great weight of biblical evidence against cessationism. About this time, a friend who headed a Bible study for a group of pastors and elders one day called me with news: “We’re not cessationists anymore.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because the final fulfillment of Joel 2 is still future. If, in the future, our sons and daughters will prophesy, then how can we believe that prophecy has already ceased?”
Good question. And that was just the beginning of the contradictions. I maintained that the New Testament was the authority for church doctrine and practice, but at the same time I also said that the practices that characterized the New Testament church should no longer characterize us today. I held the Great Commission as a charter for modern-day disciple-making, but surely “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” would include repeating Jesus’ commands to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” – and I neither obeyed these commands myself nor passed them on to my disciples. To the contrary, I taught my disciples not to do these things, nor trust anyone who (reportedly) did. I even disregarded passages like James 5:14-15 which spoke to supernatural expectations, but said nothing whatever about the putatively ceased miraculous gifts. Biblical commands began to leap off the page at me: “Do not despise prophecies.” “Do not forbid to speak in tongues.” “Desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.”
I began to wonder: if these things are supposed to continue, then why didn’t they? Why don’t they still happen? Upon investigation, I found that they do. Missionary friends return from the field with story after story — things they personally witnessed, things very much like the events of the Bible, things they don’t much talk about in the Western church because it freaks people out. And it wasn’t just the mission field. A close personal friend had his broken kneecap miraculously healed right here in the United States. Another friend was routinely seeing healing from a wide variety of ailments in direct response to his prayers. I had occasion to hear that guy speak on church history, and I was shocked at what I heard. To hear him tell it, the entire history of the church was just riddled with signs and wonders and healings. This was a history I had never heard about, despite being a church history teacher’s son and a close student of church history myself. I had to know more.
I began to investigate, and what I found surprised me. You’d never know it from the history books I read in the course of my theological education, but it’s really true: signs and wonders have characterized the history of the Church from end to end, witnessed (and at times, performed) by such sober-minded saints as Augustin, John Knox, and Charles Spurgeon. The more I looked, the more I found, both in history and in the present day. Only by dismissing accounts of supernatural events out of hand as myths — or simply by refusing to pay attention to them — can we effectively maintain the illusion that these things stopped happening at the end of the first century. The fact that so many Christian historians were willing to do just that was incredibly disturbing to me. If these guys applied the same criteria to the biblical miracle accounts that they applied to accounts of anything that happened since, they would be 19th-century liberals. (Ahem.) Where did they learn to look at stories of God’s supernatural doings with such a priori skepticism? Certainly not from the pages of Scripture!
But while the theory of cessationism was falling apart before my very eyes, the biggest blow wasn’t theoretical at all.
I hope to have the rest of the story up next week, but this is as much as I have been able to write so far. Thank you for your attention, and I sincerely hope I am meeting my goal of being gracious to all concerned and truthful at the same time.
For those of you who haven’t heard, I’ve resigned — or more accurately, been asked to resign — from my seminary teaching position. You can find the announcement here.
As the dust has settled, a few questions have come to the forefront.
- What will I do now?
- Aren’t I mad about being asked to resign?
- Why did I change my position on spiritual gifts?
Let’s take them in order.
What I will do now is exactly what I have been doing. Youth ministry at The Fount, writing curriculum for Headwaters Christian Resources, involvement in the Englewood community, seeking to know and follow Jesus, to introduce others to Him and help them follow Him, to be a better disciple, a wiser discipler, a more loving husband, a stronger friend. I won’t be teaching in the RMBC&S classroom, but I’ll continue to support the students, my friends among the faculty, and the mission of the school by whatever avenues are open to me; they’re doing good Kingdom work. The beauty of seeking first His Kingdom and His righteousness is that the work is not tied to any one organization (Pope Benedict, are you listening?). Organizational ties come and go. Wineskins wear out; all is mist, as the Preacher once said, but through it all, we fear God and keep His commandments.
And no, I’m not even a little mad about it. I don’t believe that this is an issue Christian brothers should divide over, but the school is serving a community that feels differently about it than I do. Theology is a contact sport, and when you change your position on something, you have to expect some organizational alignments to change as well; there’s nothing sillier than a professional theologian whining about having to change jobs after he’s changed his theology. That’s just the nature of the beast. When it comes to something like this issue — where the very, very contentious debates only died down about 40 years ago — the lines are brightly drawn and well policed. They’ll be gone in another 10-15 years, because people on both sides have matured, because much of the divisive craziness that characterized the debate 40 years ago isn’t around anymore, and because the younger generations are simply refusing to polarize around that issue — and God bless them for it. However, we have to deal with what’s going on now, and right now, things are still polarized enough that some folks feel the need to politicize the issue.
Also, not to put too fine a point on it, God will not be mocked. We reap what we sow. I was a foot soldier for the Doctrinal Purity Police in the not-too-distant past; in God’s good pleasure I am reaping a little of what I have sown. Of course I don’t like it, and I wish that God had arranged things differently. But discipline is never comfortable, because it brings change, and change is never comfortable. I look forward to being trained by it in order to reap the peaceable fruit of righteousness.
Finally, why the shift? This is the most common question I’ve gotten over the past days, and it’s more difficult to answer than you might expect, for two reasons. First, it’s not quite as simple a question as it looks, sitting there on your screen. Some people mean, “Please give me an autobiographical account of your shift.” Others mean, “Please tell me you haven’t turned into a snake-handling whacko.” (I haven’t, by the way.) Others mean, “Is there something wrong with my theology?” Still others, “Young man, we taught you better than this. No excuse will be good enough, but explain yourself anyway!” There are other nuances too — lots of subtext on this one. I need to be clear about which questions I can hope to answer. I intend to give an autobiographical account of how I came to hold this view. Along the way, I do also feel a responsibility to explain myself to the community that raised and trained me. If what I say addresses some of the other nuances along the way, then so be it, but these two are all I’m really trying for.
Second, it’s difficult to give an account for my shift because I’m kinda done being a foot soldier for the doctrinal purity police. I’m happy to be clear about what I believe and why, and I have no intention of dancing around the shortcomings of cessationism. As I always have, I’ll say what I believe to be true and make no apology for it. That said, there’s a lot of needless division and brother-hatred around this issue, and I have no desire to exacerbate the wounds already inflicted on Christ’s Body. I don’t want to be dishonoring to anyone, least of all to the community that raised and trained me. I can hardly avoid criticism — at least implied criticism — of that community; an autobiographical account of my shift will discuss why I started with their position, found it inadequate, and adopted a new one. That said, it is still a matter of Christian duty for me to be properly honoring and grateful to my community and the many gifts it has given me. This is a difficult balance to strike, and it is essential that I do it well. With that in mind, I’m going to delay answering this question publicly until I am able to do so in a manner that is agreeable to my conscience.
I intend to put an answer up in a few days to a week, but I’m making no promises. Articulating all this well has been significantly harder than I had thought it would be, and I had a full life before all this came up. I’ve got other things to do, and if this is going to take 50 hours, it will be a while before it gets done. I welcome private conversation on the topic at any time, so if you feel you need an answer sooner, please don’t hesitate to contact me. As I said in my resignation announcement, nobody has anything to hide here, and I’m happy to share the details in private conversation.
I was raised and trained in a cessationist tradition, but a number of years ago, I began to have serious doubts about the biblical integrity of cessationism (the belief that certain biblically attested spiritual gifts ceased shortly after the first century). Over a period of years, I have devoted considerable time, effort, and prayer to a careful study of the exegetical, theological, historical and practical issues involved.
Rocky Mountain Bible College and Seminary, where I have served as a curriculum designer and instructor since 2008, and an assistant professor since 2010, maintains a very specific teaching position on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It reads, “The miraculous gifts (apostles, prophets, healings, miracles including a word of wisdom or word of knowledge, and tongues) were temporary in nature as signs to unbelieving Jews and as a validation of the New Testament message and its messengers at the initial stage of the church.” As a result, my possible shift on this issue had some fairly serious ramifications. I want to assure you that I hid none of this from Dr. Lewis. I consider him a mentor and a friend as well as being my boss at RMBC&S, and I’ve kept him apprised of my progress as I have wrestled through this issue. For his part, he made it clear that as long as I was willing to stick to the school’s teaching position while I was working through the issue, he was happy to have me continue on faculty. These things cannot happen overnight, and I’m very grateful for his openness and support while all this was in process. He is far from the only one; a number of mentors and friends have been generous with their time and insight. I am grateful to you all.
As the process continued, the conviction that began as a trickle of doubt about the viability of one exegetical argument in one passage became an overwhelming flood. I don’t say this lightly at all, but my conclusion is simple: cessationism is exegetically insupportable, theologically weak, historically false, unable to account for realities that I personally witnessed, and practically very far removed from the New Testament. The Bible simply doesn’t teach it. Of course this is a large claim, and my reasons for making it are a separate discussion that I will be happy to have; for the moment suffice it to say that I did my best to investigate every reasonable avenue. After discussion with Dr. Lewis, I wrote and submitted a letter in which I laid out my exception to the RMBC&S teaching position on spiritual gifts, and my reasoning for it.
At this point I felt myself in a bit of a dilemma. I do not believe that this sort of issue should divide Christian brothers. I continue to believe in the mission of RMBC&S and would like to continue aiding the school in our areas of common endeavor. As a result, I didn’t feel that I could simply resign in good conscience; it seemed to me that would convey a rejection of the school that I didn’t, and don’t, feel. On the other hand, I am well aware that within our tradition the lines on this theological issue are brightly drawn and well-policed, so my resignation might be necessary for the school’s sake. I had no desire to cause the school undue trouble, and of course I didn’t want to be one of those jerks who — just to make a point — refuses to resign and forces the administration to fire them. That’s no way to love your neighbor.
Unable to act unilaterally in good conscience, I sought Dr. Lewis’ counsel on a way to resolve the issue to our mutual satisfaction. I was prepared to tender my resignation immediately if the school wanted it; on the other hand if they would prefer to continue discussing how we might navigate our differences and continue to work together, I was open to that as well.
On July 17, Dr. Lewis chose to accept my resignation. At the same time, he also indicated that he would like for us to continue discussing these issues, and to continue discussion on the possibilities for looser collaboration as opportunities arise where we might serve together: ministry within the local community, student internships, and the like.
Working with RMBC&S and with Dr. Lewis has been a lot of fun, and I am grateful for my time there. My students and colleagues, each and all, have been a blessing to me. I continue to ask the Lord to bless the school, its students and faculty, and its mission to equip believers for service, and of course I remain happy to assist in that mission as the Lord may provide opportunity.
Please be assured that there are NO hard feelings; we all remain friends. We may not be working under the same organizational umbrella for the present moment, but we are all still working for the same boss, seeking His Kingdom and His righteousness — each in the manner that God has convicted him to do.
This kind of event, if not carefully and fully explained, presents opportunities for unfounded speculation and gossip. I would not have the enemy gain a toehold through this, so I have chosen to be as clear and specific as seemed advisable. If this isn’t clear and specific enough, please ask for more details; nobody’s got anything to hide here. Thank you for bearing with the length of the explanation, and again, if I have left you with some concern or doubt, please don’t hesitate to talk with me.
God’s richest blessings attend you as He leads you in His will for your lives. My love and my prayers go with you.
In His service,
3DM’s Mike Breen likes to say that if you focus on doing church, you’ll never get round to making disciples — and your church won’t be very good either. But if you focus on making disciples — what Jesus said to focus on — then you’ll get disciples, and you’ll get church along the way.
Hold that thought.
We all can agree, I think, that it’s important for ministers to be trained, and that there are varying degrees and types of training needed. Not everybody needs to know Greek and Hebrew, but we certainly need some that do. Not everybody needs to have a solid grounding in how to minister to the homeless population, but we certainly need some that do. And so on.
In our culture, we default to preparation that involves a lot of time spent in a classroom, which at first glance seems strange. In the classroom, we are constantly seeking to import real-life scenarios, bring in guest speakers, or send the students out on internships in order to get them some real-world experience. The classroom is very far removed from the front-line realities of ministry; why did we ever think it was a good venue for preparing people for ministry?
The removal from front-line reality, of course. Withdrawing to the classroom permits time for discussion, reflection, long debates about the varying merits of different approaches to this and that. In real life, you very often don’t have time for that. You shoot up a quick prayer, make a decision, and if it’s wrong, you fix it as best you can on the fly. For exactly that reason, it’s a good idea to have made most of your big philosophy of ministry decisions long before the specific situation arises, and that means you need a certain amount of leisure for the necessary reflection and discussion.
This is not a big surprise. Jesus “often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Lu. 5:16). Jesus also withdrew with His disciples on a number of occasions (Mt. 5:1, Mar. 3:7, 13), and they traveled together, which afforded them a lot of time to discuss and debate. Becoming the sort of person that Jesus was shaping His disciples to be requires time apart, time for learning and reflection and prayer.
So…hence the classroom prep.
But are we really doing what Jesus did?
Well, there is a sense in which Jesus spent three years preparing the disciples, and then launched them into their mission. Three years’ preparation — that’s an M. Div. program, right?
Jesus was capable of erudition. He amazed the Temple academics when He was only 12, and His disciples later amazed the Sanhedrin in the same way. But he wasn’t an academic; He was out in the field. When He called the 12 disciples to follow Him, they followed Him as He preached and worked miracles — and then He sent them out to do the same. He took time apart with them, but it was always in the context of being deployed to actively do the work. The world was their classroom, and He prepared them to do what He was doing by leading them into doing it.
In seminary, professors train pastors. At its worst, the Western mentality is to find someone who’s really good at writing for other scholars, and invite him to teach pastors how to be pastors. At its best, the Western mentality goes out, finds a pastor who’s really good at what he does, and relieves him of his pastoring duties so he can spend all his time teaching pastors how to be pastors. What we don’t do is precisely what Jesus actually did: go do the work, never stop doing the work — and take a disciple along, because that’s part of the work.
We don’t do this because it’s cumbersome and labor-intensive. It takes one pastor/mentor for every student or three, and the pastors already have enough to do. You’ve got to use so many mentors that quality control is effectively impossible. And what would the accreditation process look like? But this is just to say that Jesus’ process for reproducing leaders is not amenable to the metrics of factory production. Why would that cause us to abandon what Jesus did? The goal isn’t to make ball bearings; it’s to make more people like Jesus.
I want to suggest that if we focus on making disciples, and we really have a full-orbed understanding of what a disciple is — if we focus on that bullseye, then we will get all the erudition we need. Jesus certainly did. But we’ll get it from people who are doing the work, and new disciples will develop it in the context of doing the work themselves, which will mean far less silliness and a lot more love. (Which will be the subject of next week’s post.)
I was reflecting recently on the pastors I’ve known who’ve fallen over the years, and the “sense of betrayal” that attends such an event. (And no, before anybody asks, this is not because another one has bitten the dust. Just looking back and ruminating.)
“Sense of betrayal” is in scare quotes above for a reason. Granted that the man failed to live up to the obligations of his office — but let’s be honest, how much of this “sense of betrayal” was real, honest, personal betrayal? Most of these people who feel so betrayed didn’t know his strengths and weaknesses, his triumphs and his temptations. They didn’t know him to be an excellent human being, and then find themselves horrified that he had hidden some dark secret from them. They didn’t know him at all. To them, he was a position, not a person; he was trained to maintain professional distance, and they were frankly more comfortable with him at arm’s length. They didn’t know the man, and they didn’t want to.
So the “sense of betrayal” in this case isn’t at all the same thing as, say, a wife experiences when she discovers her husband has had an affair. This is not the shock of discovering that a person you know turns out to have a side you didn’t know. This is the shock of discovering that your pastor is a person at all. It is not the pain that comes from an unfaithful friend, but the scandal that attends a toppling idol.
And this is why, in some circles of the church, they simply can’t restore a fallen minister. It isn’t that they could not do the hard work of coming to know the whole man in his brokenness and shame, ministering Christ’s healing grace to him, and bringing him back to full expression of the gifts and calling that God has irrevocably given him. The fall of a minister is a tragedy, a disaster. But it happens because of sin. I don’t want to trivialize it at all, but it’s not some mysterious and insoluble malady — it’s just sin. Jesus died for it. We’re the church, for crying out loud, the very Body of Christ, whose body was broken and blood was shed to reconcile the entire creation to God. Restoration is what we do. In heaven, we all will be perfectly restored, and “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” right? These people pray it — why can’t they abide the thought of God answering their prayers?
Because they never conceived of their pastor as a fallen human being who serves God imperfectly in the first place. They can handle the thought that their fallen former minister might some day serve God imperfectly. What they can’t do is restore the illusion that this particular man can’t fall, and in those circles, that’s a basic qualification for holding the job — as is complicity with the illusion. And then we wonder why so many of them fall.
Here lies a toppled god
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal
A narrow and a tall one.
The above theological light verse is a Tleilaxu epigram from Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah.
This post is part of April’s Synchroblog.
What if Christ did not rise?
The stock answer, of course, is straight out of 1 Corinthians 15: in that case, our faith is futile and we are of all men most to be pitied. Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
I have no difficulty with Paul’s answer there. It is born of Paul’s long reflection on Jesus and what He means, and there is deep wisdom in it. However, for many conservative evangelicals, quoting Paul’s answer is not an indication of deep wisdom and reflection. It has become a stock answer, a thing we can say that prevents us from thinking about the topic any further. It’s like looking up the answer to an equation in the back of a math book: you can know x=3.5 without being any good at algebra. However accurate the answer may be, though, just parroting it without thought is not the path to wisdom.
The path to wisdom is working through the problem yourself.
If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then He is not alive now. The last people to see Him before He died were the last people to see Him, ever; the thing He said before He died was the last thing He said, ever. He did not appear to the eleven. Not only did He not appear to various people in Judea and Galilee in the weeks following the crucifixion, He also did not appear to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road. Saul remained, to the end of his days, a devotee of Gamaliel in the school of Hillel. As he grew older, Saul wrote, of course, as brilliant rabbis are wont to do, and some of his works are preserved in the Jewish community to this day.
If Jesus is not presently alive, then He did not make His presence known to, for example, Anthony Bloom. Bloom recounts his conversion experience:
I asked my mother whether she had a book of the Gospel, because I wanted to know whether the Gospel would support the monstrous impression I had derived from this talk. I expected nothing good from my reading, so I counted the chapters of the four Gospels to be sure that I read the shortest, not to waste time unnecessarily. And thus it was the Gospel according to St Mark which I began to read.
I do not know how to tell you of what happened. I will put it quite simply and those of you who have gone through a similar experience will know what came to pass. While I was reading the beginning of St Mark’s gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I became aware of a presence. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was a simple certainty that the Lord was standing there and that I was in the presence of him whose life I had begun to read with such revulsion and such ill-will.
This was my basic and essential meeting with the Lord. From then I knew that Christ did exist. I knew that he was thou, in other words that he was the Risen Christ. I met with the core of the Christian message, that message which St Paul formulated so sharply and clearly when he said, ‘If Christ is not risen we are the most miserable of all men’. Christ was the Risen Christ for me, because if the One Who had died nearly 2000 years before was there alive, he was the Risen Christ. I discovered then something absolutely essential to the Christian message — that the Resurrection is the only event of the Gospel which belongs to history not only past but also present. Christ rose again, twenty centuries ago, but he is the Risen Christ as long as history continues. Only in the light of the Resurrection did everything else make sense to me. Because Christ was alive and I had been in his presence I could say with certainty that what the Gospel said about the Crucifixion of the prophet of Galilee was true, and the centurion was right when he said, ‘Truly he is the Son of God’. It was in the light of the Resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history.
But if Jesus is not alive, that didn’t happen. Bloom remained an angry young Marxist, and as angry young Marxists tend to, he found some problem or another in the Gospel of Mark and discarded it.
Of course, if Jesus is not alive, the last Mark ever saw of Jesus, soldiers were surrounding Him, and Mark was fleeing naked for his life. He never wrote the Gospel of Mark — what could he use for an ending?
If Jesus did not rise, He did not ascend to the Father, and if He did not ascend to the Father, He did not send the Holy Spirit. Pentecost never happened, and the signs Mark promised would follow those who believe did not happen, and we, today, do not hear God’s voice through the Holy Spirit or look to Him for intervention either.
If Jesus did not rise, biblical prophecy and proclamation is dead. Micah predicted the place, Daniel predicted the time, Isaiah predicted the manner of His coming. Jesus fulfilled every expectation…and then died prematurely, never to rise. The God Jesus called Father set the whole thing up, but then He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get it done. Of course the gospels and epistles were never written. Why would God let the whole thing collapse like that? Maybe He ran out of power. Maybe He just lost interest in us — who knows?
Of course, this would not necessarily stop us from choosing to live by the principles of the Scriptures, such as they would be. We could still live our lives by a biblical moral code — or try to. We might have to gloss over some of the tougher bits, but that’s easy enough to do, isn’t it? We could still have church services with music and teaching about the content of the Bible, just like we do now. We would not be the Body of Christ, of course, because He is not alive. But we could still operate organizations and churches; there would just be no underlying unity that holds us all together. We could still give money to support pastors and missionaries. We could still have seminaries and Bible colleges. What would we study? What would we talk about? Plenty.
We could still talk about the great miracles of the past: creation, the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus. We could still talk about how God spoke to great men in the past like Moses, giving him powerful principles for living well, or Samuel, helping him to lead Israel to victory over the Philistines. Once upon a time, God was really something; He really did act in the affairs of men. When He spoke, the fates of nations hung in the balance. Once upon a time.
But that was before He hung Jesus out to dry. That one failure changes everything. After that, how do you trust God to intervene in your life today? Why would you even want Him to speak to you today? After He set us up to expect the Messiah, and sent Jesus, in every way fulfilling our expectations, and then allowed Him to die prematurely and descend into the grave forever — well, if He could betray His own prophets, His own people, His own Messiah in that way, then we certainly couldn’t trust Him with our lives.
So we wouldn’t. With no Pentecost and no Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t even expect Him to show up, much less to do or say anything to us. We could not expect God to speak to us. We would not expect to feel His presence — or value it if we did. He wrote a book, once upon a time, and that’s as good as it’s going to get. We’d just go on living by the principles. Disagreements about the principles, of course, would balloon into huge fights — without the Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit, what have we got, besides agreement on some common principles? So we’d huddle up with some folks we agree with on the principles, and hope that as we grow in wisdom over time, we’ll get better at living them out, and that would be it.
But it would take God betraying us to make us live like that…right?
And the Synchroblog link list:
- Marta – On Faith Seeking Understanding, Truth, and Theology
- Carol Kuniholm – Risen Indeed? The Hermeneutic Community
- Tim Nichols – How Would Life be Different if Jesus did not Rise?
- Glenn – Kingdom Come or Kingdom Now?
- Sonja Andrews – The Resurrection and the Life
- Josh Morgan – The Role of the Resurrection
- Abbie Watters – What if the Resurrection were a lie?
- Minnow – Resurrection Impact
- Leah – Resurrection – Or Not!
- Hey Sonnie – The Resurrection Hoax
- Liz Dyer – The Resurrection I Firmly Believe In
- Ellen Haroutunian – Is There a Christianity Without the Resurrection?
- Jeannette Altes – What if…
- Christine Sine – If the Resurrection did not happen, how would the world be different?
- KW Leslie – Supposing Jesus is Dead
- Travis Mamone – If the Resurrection was a Hoax
- Kathy Escobar – Jenga Faith
- Jeremy Myers – What if Jesus Did not Rise?
It’s a nice day out and you’re taking a walk in the park. As you pass the playground, you see a little boy sitting on a bench. The other children are playing happily, but the little boy seems downcast. You sit down at the other end of the bench and ask him what’s wrong.
“My Daddy never talks to me.”
“Never? Not even a little?”
The boy shakes his head. “Never.”
You don’t know what to say. As you sit there, trying to think of something, you notice he has a tattered book in his lap. “What are you reading?” you ask, just to be saying something.
“It’s a book my Dad wrote,” the boy says. “He’s an author. I like to read his stuff; I feel like I get to know him a little that way.”
“If he never talks to you, where’d you get the book?”
“Mom gave it to me when I was old enough to read.”
”But he seriously never talks to you?”
“Nope.” The boy pauses. “Well, parts of the book kind of talk to me — it was before I was born, but he wrote a lot about growing up and becoming a man. I feel like he’s talking to me in the book that way.”
Suddenly it all clicks together. Of course! The boy’s dad is dead. He must have known he was dying of cancer or something like that; his wife was pregnant. He wanted to speak to his unborn son, and this was the only way he could do it. “Your dad…” you begin, and then realize that it’s sort of an indelicate question, but you’re committed now. “He, uh…he died before you were born?”
The boy looks up at you quizzically. “No, of course not. He’s right over there.” He points at a man in a blue jacket standing a little distance away. “He goes everywhere with me. He just doesn’t talk.”
You look the man up and down. He looks normal enough.
“Thanks for talking,” the boy says. “I’m gonna go play now.” Still clutching the book to his chest, he runs off to the playground.
What sort of father would treat his son that way?
After a few minutes, the man in the blue jacket comes and sits on the bench where the boy was sitting. You feel awkward knowing how he treats his son. You want to leave, but it seems like he’ll know you’re avoiding him. You think of talking with him, but it’s not really your business. He seems to sense your indecision.
“My son told you we never talk, didn’t he?”
The man smiles at you, but you can see the pain in his eyes. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’m used to it.” The silence stretches, and he looks out at his son, climbing up the jungle gym with the book still clutched in one hand. “I do talk to him, you know,” he says sadly. “But he doesn’t seem to hear me. If he didn’t read that book I wrote, I’d barely have any input in his life at all.” He turns to look at you. “I’m glad I wrote it — it’s the only thing that seems to get through. But sometimes I wish he’d just listen to me, you know?”
You are unsure how to respond, and the silence stretches again. The boy comes down the slide, but as he gets off at the bottom he stumbles and falls, skinning his knee. The father bolts off the bench, picks up his son and dusts him off, holding him close. You can hear the boy crying. Gradually the tears fade; you notice that although the father is attentive to the boy, the boy never really looks at his father. Odd….
What sort of son is this? Is he cruel? Developmentally disabled in some way? Certainly there’s something wrong.