Here is part 10 of an essay from Gary Deddo on the nature of the church and its ministry. For other parts of the essay, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. We encourage you to add your thoughts and questions in the “comments” box at the end of each post to get a discussion going. To read the full essay in booklet form, click here. To read the related essay, “Clarifying Our Theological Vision,” click here.
A Brief Theology of the Church
(with a view to equipping the saints for the work of ministry)
by Dr. Gary Deddo
Part 10: The Church’s “Sending Ministries”
Last time we looked at the order and structure in the life of the church, noting that the members of the church are to live out their relationship with the triune God through the church’s two principal ministries: worship and witness. Working together as representatives of Christ, the members are to conduct these ministries in ways that clearly display to others (both inside and outside the church) the true nature, character, heart, mind and purposes of God.
For this “ministry of all believers” to occur, the church’s leaders (referred to in GCI as pastors and ministry leaders), through the church’s foundational ministries, must focus on equipping the members for living out a life of service to God that is the overflow of a growing, deepening relationship with God, through Christ, in the Spirit. Said another way, all of the church’s ministries are to be based on the indicatives of grace that remind us of what God in Christ has done, is doing, and will yet do for humanity. All ministry must be built on this sure foundation, deriving its motivation and shape from a living relationship with the God of grace, according to his word.
If we’re not careful, ministries that begin with confidence in an active, living, present Lord who works by the Spirit, turn into ministries motivated and shaped by confidence in our own skills, methods, techniques and plans. That should not be—as the body of Christ, we are formed and gifted by the Spirit not to pursue our own desires and plans, but to worship and follow Christ. Ministries of worship, discipleship, outreach, church growth, etc. are good and necessary, but when they take over the central place in our priorities, becoming the objects of our trust and hope, they can easily pull the church away from its primary calling, which is to worship, trust, love, hope in and thus serve Christ. All that the church is and does must point back to Jesus, the Center of the center, thus directing believers and non-believers alike to Jesus who, alone, has the words of life.
One way to guard against getting off track is to affirm that the only kind of success we want in the church is that which comes from faithfulness to Christ. This means that the ultimate outcome that we seek in all ministry is seeing people become disciples of Jesus—turning to him, putting their trust and hope in him, and entering a growing, personal relationship with him as their Lord and Savior as members of his body, the church. Said another way, all that we do for God ought to contribute to knowing him and making him known.
Andrew Purves, in his book The Crucifixion of Ministry, helps us stay on target by reminding us that we do not have our own ministries, no matter what they are. There is only one ministry and it belongs to Jesus. He does not give his ministry away or lend it out. Rather, he graciously and creatively creates a place for us to participate in the various forms of ministry he is doing by the Spirit and according to his word. No ministry belongs to any one individual, one congregation, denomination, or para-church ministry. As disciples of Jesus, our privilege is to participate in his ongoing ministry. That participation must be on Christ’s terms, not our own—a participation that is for Christ, for his name’s sake. Yes, the recipients of that ministry will benefit—our focus on Christ means they will be served more, not less, since what they really need is Jesus Christ himself, as declared in his word. A personal, life-giving relationship of communion with God through Christ and in the Spirit is the best we have to offer anyone (and everyone). That gift is what the church has to offer the world—doing so is its vocation and calling.
Ministries of witness—sent to the world
In its worship, the church gathers around Jesus, the Center of the center, and in its witness, the church flows outwardly to the world. Having already in this essay looked at the church’s ministries of worship, we’ll now look at its ministries of witness—what we’ll refer to as its sending ministries.
The book of Acts gives us a clear vision of the sending of the church as witnesses to Christ in the world. At the beginning of the book, as Jesus prepares his followers to receive his Holy Spirit in a new and deeper way, he says this: “You shall be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” Notice the progression from the city they are in, Jerusalem, to the most immediate surrounding area, Judea, to a more distant and culturally and religiously different area, Samaria, and finally to the most distant lands—the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). In all these places there is one goal: be witnesses (pointers) to Jesus Christ as his representatives. This instruction from Jesus, typically regarded as identifying the church’s mission, matches Jesus’ command (commission) to his apostles:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you…. (Matt. 28:19-20 NRSV)
Jesus was God’s first missionary—to earth! Now he sends those who belong to him out as well:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21 NRSV)
God’s love is an outreaching love that extends out to draw people into personal and dynamic fellowship and communion in worship and witness. The missional God calls us, the body of Christ, to share in his mission, so his church is to be missional. As God’s own Sent One (Apostle), Jesus Christ gathers us to himself, but he also sends us out as his representatives, his ambassadors. As we go, we do not leave him behind for he goes before us. When we arrive, we find he’s already there—at work drawing all people to himself by the Spirit. Our calling is to go and when we arrive to identify what Jesus is doing and join in. Sometimes what he is doing is relatively hidden, at other times it’s fairly obvious. Either way, we’re called to discern his activity and then participate.
Participating with Christ as we go
As we go and then participate, we are encouraged and emboldened by the twin promises Jesus made in commissioning his followers: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and “Remember, I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:18, 20 NRSV). We can rely on these promises for Jesus is Lord and Savior over all space and time. “Therefore,” he says, “Go.” We go by faith in him who has all authority everywhere and who will never forsake us. We get involved in his mission as a matter of the joyful obedience of faith—we get to be involved in the very things he is doing in our world!
As we move out from worship, we are sent to nearby places in the community to those who are not yet incorporated into God’s church (ekklesia). Sent into neighborhoods, schools, community centers, civic organizations, community service organizations, professional organizations, governmental agencies, and our various work places. In all these places we remember both who we are and whose we are. We remain his representatives. Within that commission, there are a wide range of ways we might bear witness to Christ in these various places. We always represent him with our character, which shows forth in all we do. Character brings a quality to doing the ordinary or the extraordinary. From setting up tables and chairs to having integrity and honesty—it shows up in the quality of our service, work and relationships.
Ministry in these varied contexts can involve what some refer to as “the ministry of presence.” By being there as those belonging to Christ, we are “on mission” representing him in simple ways. In those places and to those people, we will often have opportunities to speak of Christ. We may have opportunity to organize a prayer group (meeting temporarily with others during a crisis situation or even regularly) or a lunch-time Bible study group. There are many ways to represent Christ on mission to the world in our ordinary “as we go” lives, watching, as we go, for ways the Spirit opens up opportunities to witness to Christ in these places to which we are sent in our communities.
A classic approach taken by the church, which diminished to some extent in the 20th century but is beginning to experience a resurgence, is churches having a “parish mentality”—that is, they view the area surrounding their place of meeting as their primary focus for outreach—their God-given “parish.” All those who live and work in their parish are their concern, for all who reside and/or work in that area are regarded as potential members of the congregation. Embracing this parish mentality, the congregation looks for ways to minister to all those within that nearby community. This parish model can be a helpful approach to the congregation’s localized missional activity.
The church is also called to reach beyond the immediate community, extending its witness even to “the ends of the earth”—crossing small and even great geographical, social, cultural and political boundaries to take God’s word to those who have no nearby church which is bearing witness to Christ so that they too can become part of the body of Christ. When people in these more distant locations are called to Christ a new local congregation can be planted. In this way the church multiplies local congregations that, in turn, grow in worship and witness to the point they become involved in planting additional churches.
In all this missional work, the Holy Spirit is sovereign. We do not make it happen—the fruitfulness does not depend, ultimately, on our commitment and skill (though the Spirit uses them when they are expressions of faith, love and hope). Unless the Holy Spirit has prepared people to receive the witness of the church, our efforts will bring about little spiritual renewal. But where the Spirit directs, we will find some persons ready to receive what we have been sent to offer. We see this pattern in Scripture: the Spirit prevented Paul and others from going to certain locations and then directed them to others. Jesus sent his disciples out “two by two” into various villages where they were to locate a hospitable person—“someone who promotes peace” (Luke 10:6 NIV)—who would welcome them, giving them access to the people of the village. Jesus was thus indicating that things had been prepared by the Spirit for a human witness to Jesus. But Jesus also told them that if no one offered them hospitality (and would not receive them in peace), they were to leave the village and go to the next. The point is this: missional ministry must be directed by the Holy Spirit with the aim of being Christ’s faithful representatives so that others may surrender their lives to the one who is their Lord and Savior.
There is no need for a congregation to choose between gathering and sending. It’s not either/or—it’s both! An established congregation that in its gathering equips its members for worship and witness will become healthy and thus grow because it will be sending out members to invite others in. Note the importance of gathering, which involves nurturing, maturing and equipping the members. Healthy gathering always leads to sending. Consider also that a congregation does not have to be large to send out—particularly into the surrounding community (parish) to be the presence of Christ in that community. In a healthy congregation, most of the members will be connected in one way or another to people who are not yet incorporated into the body of Christ.
Members are not “cogs in a missional machine”
As important as sending is, members are not cogs in a missional machine—they are not mere means to desired ends (evangelism, mission, service). A congregation is not to “use” its members in purely pragmatic ways to get God’s work done. Sadly, such misuse of members occurs in some congregations.
While God graciously incorporates us in to what he is doing, he is not a user (abuser) who disregards the health and welfare of his people, the sheep of his pasture. A church that misuses its members misrepresents the one they are often feverishly trying to serve. In doing so, their motive is not faith, hope and love for God, but fear, guilt, anxiety and thinking God has left it all up to us to be “successful,” as though God is less dependable than we are. But that is not the case. As Paul said to Timothy, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2Tim. 2:13 NRSV). God is not dependent upon us, but it is his joy and intention to involve us, his children, in the saving, reconciling, renewing work he is doing as our heavenly Father.
If we approach mission with a wrong motive, those observing what we are doing will conclude that the God we serve is a task-master—a slave-driver looking for worker-bees instead of a father who involves his children with him in his work. As a result, they will have a hard time seeing God as patient, loving, kind—the one who calls us friends, not slaves. They will have a hard time figuring out what Jesus meant when he said that his yoke is light and his burden is easy. In short, the character of our ministry reflects to others the character of the God we serve. The spiritual and social health of the congregation will be the key factor in others wanting to be equipped and then go out in mission. Indeed, the health and quality of relationships in the congregation will be key to having those who are invited in, to want to visit, explore, stay and eventually become incorporated into the family of God.
The gospel fulfills and offends
What sort of results can we expect when we join in God’s mission through Christ and by the Spirit? We find answers in Scripture, where we note that our witness—the proclamation of the gospel—fulfills certain things in people’s lives but also offends certain things in a person’s life (especially their pride, self-justification, self-centeredness and self-righteousness). The gospel can be a stench of death to some and a sweet-smelling savor to others (2 Cor. 2:16 NRSV). Not all are ready to submit to grace, to receive forgiveness, to come under new management, to bow down to their Lord or Savior. Pride and arrogance will often be obstacles to the grace of God. That’s what Jesus found when some rejected what he was freely offering. He healed ten lepers, yet only one came back to give thanks. He prepared his disciples for rejection, telling them about four kinds of soil and how each would react to the planting of the word of God. Different soils would have different yields; in some the crop would fail altogether. Nevertheless, the disciples were to sow the word, both “in season and out,” as Paul told Timothy. The disciples would not be in control of the outcome—that would be the Lord’s responsibility.
In our idealism and romanticism, we sometimes think everyone will appreciate a helping hand or a good deed. But that is not true. Some resent being served—they view it as demeaning, even dehumanizing. Some will want to use God as a means to their own ends, like Simon Magus, who wanted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit for his own use. Some are more than happy to take advantage of help and kindness, but when it offends their pride they’ll having nothing to do with us or God. Such is the condition of their hard hearts. The Spirit will have to continue to minister to them in ways that we cannot before they will be receptive to what we are able to offer. They will have to begin to die to themselves—to admit to God their poverty of spirit. No miracles, no amount of good works will, in and of themselves, bring such repentance about. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus was not crucified for being a nice guy who did miracles. His message about God, who he was in relationship to God and his uncovering of the profound nature of our extreme need to be forgiven and be reconciled to God, offended many. Nevertheless, some followed him, but a relative few. It will be the same for those who minister in his name.
The difference between believers and non-believers
The New Testament makes it clear that there is a distinction to be made between one who is believing and who is not. Not all are believing. Not all have been “born from above” (born again). Not all are members incorporated into the body of Christ. Not all are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Not all have received God’s forgiveness through repentance. Not all have accepted the reconciliation with God that is theirs in Christ. Not all proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior. Not all worship God in spirit and in truth (Jesus Christ being that Truth). Not all are receptive to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and some may be actively resisting the Spirit to the point of proclaiming the Spirit as being evil itself (thus blaspheming, Matt. 12:31). Some are repudiating the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and seeking to destroy the faith of others in Christ and confidence in his saving work. Some love the darkness and hate the light. Some are workers of evil. Scripture gives numerous such warnings, including ones from Jesus concerning resisting the Holy Spirit and refusing to receive him on the basis of who he is and what he has to offer.
The church is given its mission in order to make God’s word known and bear testimony to the nature, purpose and character of God, which is revealed in Jesus Christ. We do this to join Jesus as he continues to seek worshippers for the Father who has reconciled the world to himself through Christ. The mission of the church reaches out to the ends of the earth because it is God’s intention and desire that all people come to repentance, receiving their forgiveness and beginning to live in personal, dynamic and daily fellowship of faith, hope and love expressed in worship and becoming a member of the body of Christ.
God chooses some so that they will reach out to include all in the saving relationship he offers to all. In doing so, we join with the Spirit of Jesus who works personally, individually and dynamically to work out in each of us what Christ has done for all of us. The Holy Spirit brings to fulfillment in us what the finished work of Christ completed for us—in our place and on our behalf. The Holy Spirit opens closed eyes and softens hard hearts to be receptive to the grace of God freely given. So although the church cannot do the Spirit’s work, and certainly cannot get out ahead of the Spirit’s ministry, the church does join in with the Spirit of Jesus to see the finished work of Christ fulfilled in others.
This biblical teaching about the difference in responses between individuals prepares us as to what to expect when involved in Christ’s continuing ministry by the Spirit. When there is resistance or even rejection, that does not mean we or God are being faithless. Resistance is a normal, though grievous, part of faithful Christian ministry.
So our teaching and patterns of ministry ought to follow the biblical pattern, which calls for making a distinction between believers (those who are believing, receiving and participating—having fellowship with Christ) and non-believers (those who are not having that fellowship). The passages of Scripture alluded to above help us identify the range of possible responses to God’s freely-given grace that are provoked by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. By describing, exhorting, commanding, and warning about the nature of our response to the gospel of Jesus and our participation, both the benefits of reception and the dangers of rejection and non-participation are revealed.
If we do not account for this dynamic in our teaching and approach to ministry, much of what is said in the Gospels, Acts and the epistles must be dismissed or neglected. In turn, either our experience of ministry will make no sense and most likely lead to burnout or resentment, or we will be tempted to reconstruct our ministry on some other foundation other than Christ and his word. Our theology and practice of ministry must make room for and make sense of what constitutes so much of the New Testament’s new covenant teaching.
Some may be concerned that speaking about a response to God’s freely-given grace might be legalistic, or may drive a wedge of hostility or rejection between those who are believing and those who are not. While these are dangers to watch out for, the way to guard against them is not to disregard biblical teaching on the nature of ministry, thus misrepresenting the importance of receptivity and participation involved in living by the Spirit in the life of Christ.
Differing responses to the gospel
The biblical teaching recognizes and addresses these problems, guarding against “works righteousness,” or the promotion of alienation or rejection of those who are not yet believing. But it does not do so by denying that our responses to Christ and his gospel make a difference. Instead, Scripture points out there are two opposite directions to move in response to the proclamation Christ and his gospel.
Scripture presents salvation as a relational reality that, by the Spirit, involves personal, dynamic, daily interaction. Salvation is not an impersonal, mechanical, cause-effect, automatic, non-relational “thing” nor is it an abstract, general fact. We were created for fellowship, communion, participation—a real relationship with God through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. That is God’s intentional, covenantal purpose.
That said, it is a misuse of the idea of the call to participation and the importance of receptivity to Christ and his gospel, to identify exactly who is and who is not participating or who is participating to exactly what degree. That would be to approach participation in legal, mechanical, causal and impersonal ways. That is not its purpose and doing so would amount to a disregard for the larger relational reality of the indicatives of grace. Biblical teaching of those distinctions hold out hope to those who are not yet participating, to warn those who seem to be obviously and persistently resisting participation, to encourage those who have been participating to continue, and to highlight all the benefits of participating as fully as the grace of God enables—not only for the benefits to one’s self but to others, both believers and non-believers (not yet-believers). And more than that, such teaching and patterns of ministry give God the glory for his grace of enabling us, through the Son and by the Spirit, to enter into a personal, dynamic, responsive and loving fellowship and communion with him in a relationship of worship.
How then do we minister?
Given these realities and biblical instructions, how do we minister, recognizing that the gospel calls for a response of repentance and faith? Do we preach one way to believers and another to non-believers? No—the gospel remains the same. We proclaim who Jesus is and what he has done for all, and we then indicate the ways to respond appropriately to this good news, namely with repentance, faith, hope and love towards God. As this message is received, the hearer is drawn up into a life in fellowship and communion with Christ where they are transformed by his word and Spirit from the inside-out. They are renewed and regenerated as the Spirit works out in them what Christ has done for them already. This leads to a joyful life of the obedience that comes from (or belongs to) faith, not a works-righteousness (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).
Perhaps we can think of it this way: every human is on a slope that goes downward, away from the grace, truth and reality of who God is and what he has done for all. This downward trajectory is the direction of non-participation. But the slope also goes upward toward being in personal fellowship and communion with God on the basis of who he is and who we are in relationship to him. What is important, then, is not where one is located on the slope at any given moment, but the direction one is headed. Believers, by definition, are facing uphill, moving toward the goal of the high calling of Christ, a walk (which often is a struggle) guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Those who are unbelieving are those deliberately and persistently facing downhill and so headed away from Christ, pursuing other aims and ends for their lives, resisting the Spirit.
The New Testament allows that though all believers are faced in the same direction, different ones are at different places on the slope. The degree and speed of uphill progress varies from one believer to another, though all are being drawn in the same direction by the grace of God and no one believer has “arrived.”
Given this perspective, the unity and solidarity of the believer with the non-believer is in the constant need we all have for God’s forgiving, healing, transforming, amazing grace. Some have put it this way: “We all meet together at the foot of the cross.” That’s where we all share common ground. God is at work to bring all to repentance and faith because the whole God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is for us, not against us, believer and non-believer alike. No one ever turns towards God in repentance and faith except the Spirit draws them on the basis of the finished earthly ministry of Jesus, sent from the Father. The Spirit draws in order to convert the person, taking up residence (indwelling) in the life of the individual, in a way similar to how Jesus took up residence in his creation by assuming our human nature to himself. No one ever grows up in Christ except by the active grace of the Living Word and the Spirit of God.
While we can never know the exact location of anyone on the slope, we can, with charity and clarity, point out the way—the direction to go and to not go. The most important indication of facing in the right direction of receptivity and participation is repentance. We find the call to repentance in Jesus’ teaching (including the Lord’s Prayer) and in the preaching in the book of Acts. Repentance is turning towards God to receive from him all he freely offers us in Christ. In that turning towards him, one is turning away from what drags us out of a receptive and trusting relationship and fellowship with him. Such turning includes the exercise of a mustard seed’s worth of faith (trust), which, itself, is a gift from the Spirit
A Christ-centered and Trinitarian understanding of having our life in Christ means God enables and directs all of us to move in the same direction: to greater faith, hope, love and life-long transformation. God’s grace pursues us so that we become incorporated into the body of Christ as his worshipers and witnesses to the gospel. Thus we offer the same message to all—we proclaim to all the indicatives of who Christ is and what he has done for all. Then, on that basis alone, we declare the imperatives of grace to receive this good news. “Since God is for us all in Jesus Christ, therefore receive him, enter into a personal relationship with him, participate, become incorporated, affirm your belonging to him, body and soul. Surrender to him all you are and all you have.”
Are words necessary?
Another issue related to a congregation’s “sending ministries” is how our participation in the mission of Jesus requires both deeds and words. Unfortunately, these two are sometimes placed at odds in a tug-of-war with some churches and denominations aligning with one and deemphasizing (even ignoring) the other. But the biblical model of witness knows no such dichotomy. To speak is to do (Paul and Silas were thrown into prison for such speaking-doing!). Performing acts of services (doing) without interpreting those acts with words falls short of the biblical model for witness. You’ll sometimes hear people quote Francis of Assisi as saying, “Preach the gospel—and if necessary, use words.” But research has shown that Francis never said any such thing. In fact, he was widely known for his preaching (sometimes to animals!).
What Scripture shows us is that the words (the word of God) is the root, and the deeds are the fruit. Notice the priority of the word—a priority we should respect and emulate. The word is the basis for the deeds—for the actions of outreach. The word spoken expresses the meaning of the deeds, for no deed interprets itself. Without words, deeds can be interpreted in a whole array of ways. By adding simple words to our deeds, we become transparent and authentic, indicating who and what is behind our deeds.
The word, which is first in priority, is then backed up, corroborated, validated by the deeds (we “walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” though both walk and talk are needed). We see this in the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels and the ministry of the early church in the book of Acts and the epistles. There we see that preaching and teaching came first, and then came the deeds and even miracles to confirm the source and truth of the words concerning Jesus that were being proclaimed. Jesus never stopped preaching and teaching. That’s what got him crucified! But he would cease doing miracles when there was no receptivity to him or to his word. There was no point to the deeds if his words were being refused. In such instances, Jesus’ preaching and teaching were his primary deeds.
Words have priority because much of the good news is about a transcendent reality that cannot be “done.” The character and purposes of God and his promises (which are the basis of our hope) cannot be seen—they must be declared and so interpreted. We only know about the internal and eternal relationships in the Trinity because Jesus tells us about them. A witness witnesses to what is not apparent, revealing through their witness what otherwise is obscure. The offer of a genuine, humble, transparent witness invites receptive humility without which the gospel cannot be heard.
If all we offer people is deeds devoid of words, we may fall prey to an issue Jesus addressed—hungry people seeing our deeds as a solution to their temporary, physical need. Remember these words of admonition and warning from Jesus:
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent…. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:26-29 NRSV; John 6:33-35 NRSV)
The deeds of Jesus were signs that pointed to him, leading people to believe in him as the Bread of Life. But some just wanted the “goodies” of God, but not God himself. They wanted the benefits of God but not the Son and word of God. They wanted the gifts but not the Giver. Our priority in outreach, then, must be for our deeds to point to their Source—and we do that most directly by using the words of the gospel to point out the meaning of the sign-deeds that we are doing. While that is not always possible, it must always be the priority in our ministries of witness. The point is not to have people believe that we are a church of good deeds, but that it belongs to Jesus Christ its Lord and Savior.
The word of the gospel of Jesus Christ should always be the priority in our witness (outreach) because some will resent our good deeds. Why? Because those deeds will offend their sense of self-sufficiency. There is no guarantee that deeds will “get through” when words do not. If we think deeds will avoid all offense to the gospel we are mistaken. People did not necessarily believe in Jesus even after the event of his resurrection. The offence of the gospel can never be entirely avoided. We will sometimes experience rejection, just as Jesus, Paul and Peter did. It will be painful, but in our pain we will join Jesus in his suffering, and being longsuffering will be part of our witness to the world.
One word of caution here: to put the priority on the words does not mean that having our actions (deeds) align with our words is unimportant. In fact, it’s vitally important. We must not say one thing and then do another. We must not be hypocrites. Proclamation (words) and acts of service (deeds) need to work together in a proper order and structure as the church reaches out in mission.
Guarding the one gospel
When it comes to words, it’s important to note that there is a significant backlash against doctrine and teaching in the West. The word dogmatic now has only negative connotations for most English speakers. Dogmatic means holding to one’s opinion no matter what the facts might be. To be dogmatic is to be stubborn and unreasonable, even irrational. But dogma in a Christian context simply means the normative teachings of the church—teaching that the whole church should embrace and hold on to, based on the apostolic writings. That’s also what orthodoxy means: right belief. Theology is the attempt to summarize and synthesize these norms or foundational beliefs used to inform our understanding of our faith and the message of the Bible in such a way that it feeds our faith, hope and love for God through Christ.
Jesus, his apostles and other early church leaders affirmed that there were normative teachings that could faithfully point to the truth and reality of who God is and what he intends for his people. The church is given a message that points to the Messenger, and this means that there is the possibility that false teachings will arise and be promoted. That is what we see in Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders of his day, and what the early church experienced and the New Testament writers refer to and warn about numerous times.
The church is charged with remaining faithful to what it has been given and to pass it on to others. Though no one is saved by right doctrine (we worship Christ, not doctrines), there is no place for doctrinal self-righteousness—no excuse for sloppy or erroneous teaching. The biblical charge to teach the faith with accuracy and clarity is directed to those called to lead the foundational ministries of the church.
As signs and pointers to the reality of Christ, true doctrine and theology assist us in enjoying a good and right relationship with God through Christ. C.S. Lewis likened theology to a map which is not the road, terrain, or oceans we traverse, but indicators of these that is vital, especially when traveling somewhere you’ve never been. While a map can never be a substitute for the reality, it can be vital for a safe and successful interaction with the reality. The more faithful the map to the reality it represents, the better. In our doctrinal and theological teachings we want to pass along the most faithful maps we can. If those maps are found to be inaccurate, we must revise them to more accurately reflect the reality they represent, not conform to some current fashion or whim. The reality our maps must represent is Jesus Christ—the full and final revelation of who God is. Our doctrinal, theological maps must be faithful summaries and syntheses of that revelation so that they point to the same realities the apostles spoke of, and are formulated in ways that aim to bring about the same response to that reality that the first apostles had to Jesus and his word, the gospel.
The New Testament assumes that the church can know and identify faithful and right teaching. The church has a gospel that can be rightly grasped and faithfully passed on. Those leading the foundational ministries and all members of the church should aim to have that same confidence and commitment to be faithful to the apostolic gospel. That does not mean there will not be needed adjustments as we proceed. But because we believe in the faithful provision of the God revealed in Jesus and in his written word, we trust he will lead and correct us in our understanding of that word and enable us to communicate it to others in words as well, with deeds to back them up.
Perhaps it would be good at this point in the essay to review New Testament teaching in regard to leaders of the church knowing and passing on normative teaching and guarding against false and misleading teaching. After Paul met Jesus Christ in person and was personally appointed by him as apostle to the Gentiles, Paul says that there is no other gospel. Against those who claim there is another, Paul says, “Not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7 NRSV). Then to Timothy Paul writes this:
Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us. (2 Tim. 1:13-14 NRSV)
Paul then goes on to say that there is a core teaching that contributes to faith, hope and love for God on the basis of who he is and what he has done for us, is doing and will do:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:14-17 NRSV)
Paul was confident in the effectiveness of this normative teaching, knowing the faithfulness of the God who is its source, and God’s faithfulness to provide to his people the persons and gifts needed to enable them to be faithful. Many other passages speak to the importance of sound, faithful teaching (e.g. Col. 2:8; 1 Cor. 4:1; Titus 2:1; 1 Cor. 2:13; Gal.1:12). These passages show that there were (and still are) doctrinal norms and standards for the church that can and should be communicated through the church’s teaching and proclamation—both in the church and in the world.
Form and content of the message
One of the factors sometimes overlooked in the church’s ministry is the form (style, approach, technique, method, shape) of the gospel proclamation and witness. If the proclamation of the gospel is to be faithful and thus impactful, its form must match (align with) the gospel’s content and the character of the one it proclaims. This goes for the form of our worship as well as our witness.
Paul wrestled with this issue because some in his day were attempting to outdo Paul and the original apostles by impressing people in ways that had nothing to do with the gospel. Thus Paul writes to the church in Corinth that was looking for a more “successful” (dynamic, charismatic) leader than Paul (who had been thrown into prison):
Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:1-6 NRSV)
In similar fashion, Paul wrote this to the Thessalonian believers:
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others. (1 Thess. 2:1-6 NRSV)
Most often, it seems, compromising on the form of presentation or method used involves one of two concerns that override the need for congruence of message and method:
1. Not wanting to offend. Wanting to avoid (if not eliminate) offense (or any sort of discomfort or even unfamiliarity), forms and styles are adopted from the surrounding culture. This is done with little to no consideration as to whether the adopted form/style fits with what the church stands for and has to offer the surrounding culture. While there is no need to unnecessarily offend or make people uncomfortable, the church is not in a popularity contest. We cannot serve up the gospel up as a consumer good. We must not offer it by making it appeal to something it does not actually offer (like instant success, wealth or health). There is no room for a “bait and switch” strategy to bring people in on one basis, then try to sell them on the need for forgiveness and the grace of God. The gospel “sells” itself! We have only one thing to offer and it can’t be bought for a discount—or at any price. The ways (styles, forms) of presenting the gospel that conform to who and what we are serving pose no problems. But a process of discernment is called for so that our methods/styles/forms do not contradict our message and thus the One whose message it is we proclaim.
2. Wanting success. The other concern that can lead to compromise of the form of ministry is anxiety about success (even survival!). The immediate needs and circumstance, and the anxiety and fear they sometimes engender, can lead to taking short-cuts, using means to uphold the local church so it can continue to exist or become more successful. But if the means used to survive or be successful compromise the message of the gospel, we have undercut ourselves and the result is the survival or success of a less-than-faithful church. Again, the means must match the message and the One we represent. The only way to survive, and the only success we should seek, is the survival and success that comes from faithfulness, not compromise.
Resisting unfaithful compromise will require trusting for the outcome in our present, living and active God by his word and Spirit. But that should not surprise us—that is what the entire Christian life is about. Christian life and ministry take place out of the obedience of faith, hope and love in our living Lord—trusting in his mercy and grace operative among us by his word and Spirit. We share in Christ’s ministry—it is not our own. The success of our efforts is always in his capable, trustworthy hands. We can concentrate on resting in that, as we, together, seek to be as faithful as we can.