In theological discussion, much is made of allowing the conversation to rest on common ground, things all parties at the table accept as true. Those conversations are both useful and frequently important for the growth and development of the church and its people. They are (appropriately) common in, say, a seminary classroom, or over a leisurely cup of coffee among friends on a lazy Saturday morning. I partake in them often.
But those conversations take time–time we often don’t have in the moment. On the fly, we have a different sort of conversation, one that arises from what I call the “practitioner mentality.” No matter how long we might take to discuss an issue in the classroom or over coffee, when the same issue comes up in a practical context, we usually have very limited time and bandwidth, and so it’s a different sort of conversation. We have to do something, now.
In those conversations, authority and trust are vital. We aren’t all going to agree on all the details. If we can agree on who has the authority to make the call, and we can trust God to lead us as we move forward, that has to be enough.
A fellow that wasn’t at the wedding at Cana has a certain epistemic right to doubt the accounts of water turning to wine; a servant who was in the room at the time does not have the same right. In fact, it would be foolish and wicked for him to retreat to skepticism instead of bearing witness to what he has seen and heard.
In the moment, a leader makes decisions based on what he knows, and he does this even if other people don’t know all the same things.
I have seen God at work, from simple things like bringing someone to repentance to more showy things like healing and casting out demons. I was there. That which I have seen with my eyes, which I have heard, which I have looked upon, and my hands have handled–this is what I proclaim to you. I can no longer refuse to know, and I don’t pretend ignorance for the sake of someone else’s comfort.
I accept that someone else might be within his epistemic rights to doubt my account of my experiences, particularly if he doesn’t know me anyway. Perhaps I’m lying. Perhaps I’m deluded. Perhaps I’m simply mistaken. How could he know? (There are ways, actually–read the beginning of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe for one of them–but skip that for now.) Thus far, someone else’s epistemic rights.
But I also have an epistemic responsibility. I may not pretend that I don’t know things that I do, in fact, know. And so my decision-making must address the factors I know to be real, and this despite the fact that not everybody I’m leading is going to be on the same page about that.
Nice as it would be to have everyone on the same page before we move forward, Pisidian Antioch isn’t going to evangelize itself while we wait for the Jerusalem Council to figure things out. The opposite, actually: The issues were already worked out in practice; the Jerusalem Council was vetting the theory after the fact. That after-the-fact vetting is a really important church function, but the point here is that you don’t pause all the work of ministry waiting for it. It does happen after the fact. If course corrections are needed, as they sometimes are (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-14), then you make them as soon as you figure it out. That’s how a bunch of the church epistles got written.
The weekly services, the weddings and funerals, this week’s counseling appointments–these things keep coming. Every day, all the problems get a day older, whether we have the necessary theory worked out or not. Life does not wait. Theory does not move at the pace of life; effective practice had better, even if there are unsolved questions.
That’s a panic-inducing thought to a theoretician. With events flying at you at the pace of real life, how do you ever know what to do? But here’s a thing practitioners know from experience: certainly we sometimes don’t know what to do, and we improvise. But very, very often, we actually know what God would have us do; we just can’t explain why it’s the right course of action. In other words, our courage gets tested a lot more than our discernment. So we pray really hard, listen really well, and move forward anyway with the best call we can make at the time. It is enough to obey as best we can, and trust that over time, the underlying wisdom of God’s way will be revealed.
The underlying explanation, when it comes, will be fascinating, and may even allow us a fresh take on things that will reveal better practices or new frontiers for application. But if we don’t have that, we have to keep moving anyway. We rely on what we know is real, and trust that the explanations will get better in time.
Does that feel a bit shaky to you? Consider this: our best physicists still don’t know how the four fundamental forces relate to each other, but in the meantime, the engineers keep building bridges…and the bridges work pretty well.
So let’s build.