The 7 bits of Greek you must have (but don’t need to know) to be a preacher (and why they mean you don’t need a detailed working knowledge of Greek)

Last week two of Aussie Christianity’s biggest brains Con Campbell and John Dickson came together to blow up the internet. These guys seem to belong to some super-human category; both polymaths who are successful at just about everything they apply themselves to; both with IQs that leave most of us in the shade; both incredible gifts to the church… but in this case, I think, both wrong about what life as the church requires of those who would ‘preach’ or even, as they’ve clarified, those who would be the preacher-teacher-pastor in a western church…

Con was giving a speech at the ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) conference in the US, John was in attendance (this already marks them out as different to the rest of us mere mortals and that’s ok; I’ve got a profound appreciation for the work ETS does, and these guys do, for the church). We don’t have all of Con’s presentation; just this bit from John’s Facebook post (I’ll bold the bits the subsequent discussions have focused on and it’s worth reading Stephen McAlpine’s two posts in response (1, 2):

Listening to Con Campbell putting the hard word on pastors, students, academics: If you want to be a preacher, you simply must have a detailed working knowledge of New Testament Greek. Undergraduate historians are expected to have decent Greek and Latin by third year. Doctors must know the inner workings of a cell. Mechanics are to understand all the working parts of a car. Preachers must know and use the language of their primary source.

I don’t think you need a detailed working knowledge of Greek to be a preacher; even of the kind Con and John say they mean. But this suggestion and the understanding of preaching and the ministry of a church underneath it is interesting and important; and as much as I’m able to challenge these two fine minds, and plenty of others, I’d like to offer some gentle pushback (but also a completely different paradigm for church) on the absolute nature of this statement; and on what ‘preaching’ is in the life of the church and thus who a preacher is, and what a preacher does.

I don’t think being a preacher means you personally “must” have a detailed working knowledge of Greek, I do think we need these 7 concepts, that have Greek words attached to them (and come from me at least knowing some Greek). I think preaching is the proclamation of the word of God; specifically the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah (the Gospel) as found in every word of Scripture; by the church (the body) for the church and the world. I think it’s ok to have a paid preaching pastor who primarily sees the church and their role in it as being about preaching not teaching (but in the life of the body we need teachers).

Here’s a cheeky seven Greek words and/or phrases that provide the building blocks for this understanding of what we’re on about as preachers (paid, or not); what a preacher is (and who), and why it’s important for the body to know Greek, but not necessarily every speaking part of the body…

1. θεός (Theos)

Definition: God

You actually don’t need to know that God is ‘theos’ in Greek, in order to be a preacher, but all preaching that is true starts with God (and finds its ‘end’ in God too). Preaching in the ‘reformed tradition’ I belong to is often understood as proclaiming the word of God; to the point that you are speaking God’s word to those listening, and so we need to know what this word is; the question is, do we need Greek to do that?

2. λόγος (Logos)

Definition: a word (as embodying an idea), a statement, a speech

There are some questions about who this word it is proclaimed to and its ends aimed at; whether just to the church, just to the world, or both (and I’m going with both because, as I’ll argue, the same ‘word’ or λόγος is what both believers and non-believers need to hear to know God).

The aim of preaching is ‘theology’ (from θεό- λόγος); the understanding of God. Theology is much more of a ‘must’ for the preacher; because it’s ultimately what guides us in understanding the Bible (in a circular way, because the languages do help us understand God and the word of God). I’m not convinced you need Greek to do theology; some people need Greek in order for theology to happen, certainly, but to suggest that the original languages are essential to truly know God (which nobody is actually explicitly saying, but it’s an implication of the assertion that preachers in the church need Greek) is to rob a significant number of believers (the majority) of the ability to do ‘theology’; to attempt to ‘know God’; in a way that runs counter to the Reformation, and is theologically problematic to the extent that all true knowledge of the infinite and thus-totally-beyond-our-natural-comprehension God actually needs to come from God (via the Spirit as it applies his word to us) as an act of accommodation for our human limitations; putting the Bible in human language to begin with was an act of incarnation and accommodation where words that could only ever really be analogies for the being of God were used to help us understand, but if they’re words with no Spirit, they’re just dead letters, and I’m fairly certain the Holy Spirit speaks english and mandarin too; that, in some sense, is what drives the church to translate the word of God into the language of different peoples of the world in the first place; that they might know and be able to speak truth about God (or preach) via the Spirit working to bring these words to life in our dead hearts.

Paul does some interesting stuff with this; the idea that God can only be truly known (and thus preached) by the Spirit bringing words to life, in 2 Corinthians 3, where he talks about what those words on a page (in Hebrew) did for the Hebrew reading readers without the Spirit…

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:13-18

Ultimately God’s word; the content of our preaching that helps us know God, isn’t simply found in a book originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; but in a person (and of course, the book is where we go to meet the person). But it’s this person who is the centre of our preaching as both the word of God and the one who helps us truly know God; who bridges that gap from the infinite to the finite. I’ll bold the bits where these Greek words feature…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.— John 1:1, 14

If preaching is making God known via his word, then what we’re proclaiming is Jesus; his word; the way he speaks to the world. We’re proclaiming a particular message about him though too. I think Greek can certainly help give us a rich understanding of the written words about the Word-made-flesh, but I’m not sure Greek is essential if we believe that God makes himself known by the Spirit through these written words. If Jesus is God’s definitive word into the world; what else would we preach? I’ll suggest below that any ‘teaching’ from the Bible that is truly about God needs to understand the telos of the Bible more than simply the language the Bible was written in and what a text might have meant in its context apart from God’s revelation of himself in Jesus (note: this Hebrews bit uses different Greek words for ‘word’ and ‘spoke’; but it does describe the substance of the speech of God…)

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. — Hebrews 1:1-3

When the writer of Hebrews does speak of λόγος, in what I think is an argument build from chapter 1 despite using some synonyms, they say:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. — Hebrews 4:12-13

3. κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστός (kurios Jesus Christos)

Definition: kurios: Lord, Iésous: Jesus or Joshua, the name of the Messiah, Christos: the Anointed One, Messiah, Christ,

The substance of the message we preach is caught up in these two words; Greek words that we transliterate (though Jesus is a transliteration of the Hebrew first); “Jesus Christ.” This isn’t simply a name, but what we proclaim; our preaching starts here and cascades into the implications of its truth for knowing things about God, and life in God’s world as part of his kingdom. Or as Peter puts it in Acts 2:

Seeing what was to come, [David] spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah (Christ), that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”’

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” — Acts 2:31-36

That’s a pretty good summary of the Gospel from the first recorded sermon from a post-resurrection preacher. I don’t think you need to know Greek to pull it off… just how the Old Testament anticipates the New; and how the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the Lord who pours out the Spirit and invites us to share in the fruits of Jesus’ defeat of death as we join his kingdom. You don’t need to know the phrase ‘kurios Jesus Christos’; though according to Philippians 2:11 every tongue will one day declare this truth… but even knowing ‘Jesus Christ is Lord” involves knowing 2 must know Greek words that are essential for preaching; so good job.

4. ἁγίου πνεύματος (hagiou pneumatos)

Definition: hagiou: Holy, pneumatos: Spirit

This one has been covered above, but just to explicitly state it; you don’t need to know the Greek words for Holy Spirit to be a preacher of God’s word; but you do need to have the Holy Spirit making God’s word ring true for you, and allowing you to speak the message at the heart of true preaching; that Jesus is Lord and God. Let’s bold all these bits so far again to see just how much important, must-have, Greek we’ve got under the belt now…

Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. — 1 Corinthians 12:3

5. τὸ εὐαγγέλιον κηρύσσω (to euangelion ho kerusso)

Definition: The Gospel I preach: to: the, euangelion: good news/Gospel, ho: I, kerusso: to herald (proclaim); to preach (announce) a message publicly and with conviction (persuasion)

The controversial statement from Con and John, and much of my reaction to it, is caught up in the sense that Greek is a must in order to preach; that our faithfulness to the substantial message of our preaching somehow depends on our knowledge of Greek. I think Con, and then John, have used the wrong word; had they said ‘Bible teacher’ that might have not been quite so controversial… but even then I’d have disagreed with the imperative because of the above; and because of what the Bible’s central message that teaching ought to convey actually is; that Jesus is both Lord and Christ.

There are lots of words translated as ‘preach’ in our english Bibles; but the most common (and the one that gives us the Greek for ‘preacher’ (kerux), is kerusso. A kerux carried the proclamation of a king and spoke with the authority of the king (which works with what the reformed tradition thinks preaching is); the message of the king, as I’ve suggested above is actually the proclamation of the arrival of a king, or the king’s victory over his enemies; when heralds were called kerux and they were people who did this kerusso thing; and their message was a message of a king’s great victory (ie in the Roman empire), the kerux spoke the euangelion; the good news. The kerux, when they did this, might also be called an ‘evangelist’ (when you say ‘evangelism’ you’re speaking Greek). When the word preaching is used in the New Testament it’s used of this sort of task; both when John announces the arrival of Jesus, in the words of Jesus himself, and in the task the church then takes up in our preaching ministry to the world. We’re to be heralds preaching the arrival of our king. I’m not sure that task requires Greek; there are certain types of teaching in the life of the church that might; but our central task is to speak the words of God, from the written word, pointing to the living Word; our Lord and King. If you need Greek for that then we should pack up and move to Athens and start a colonisation project; because somehow knowing the good news of the Gospel requires that…

This sort of preaching is what John the Baptist did as he heralded the arrival of Jesus and his kingdom:

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. — Luke 3:3

It’s what Jesus did as an outworking of the Spirit’s anointing, while making God known…

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. — Matthew 4:23

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.— Matthew 9:35

It’s what Jesus said would happen in the ‘end times’ (the time from his crucifixion to his return) when the Gospel to go to all nations…

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.— Matthew 24:14

And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. — Mark 13:10-11

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” — Luke 24:45-49

That last one is interesting because it comes as Jesus both explains how the Old Testament points to the central good news of the Christ… so that ‘preaching’ is possible from the Scriptures (cause that’s what understanding them involves), and links preaching to the Holy Spirit. It explains why Biblical Theology is important, and why when you preach as though the Bible is centred on the arrival of Jesus as the messiah, every sermon should be ‘Gospel’ and should be ‘preaching’ even if it involves teaching, rebuking, correcting, encouraging, and careful instruction… but I’d suggest a sermon is ok; and the life of a church community will be ok, so long as the preaching is grounded in the Gospel and its implications for life as the body of Jesus in a world that desperately needs to hear the word of life. It’s also this proclaimed word; the Gospel; that should help us weigh up all other forms of speaking in church, be it teaching, prophecy, or exhortation.

This preaching of the Gospel is what Paul does (as he explains to the elders in Jerusalem, as described in Galatians…)

I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. — Galatians 2:2

And it’s what Paul tells Timothy to do… to take up this baton, and this activity…

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word (κήρυξον τὸν λόγον); be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. — 2 Timothy 4:1-5

The essence of the message we preach is the good news of Jesus; proclaiming that he is the Christ. It doesn’t take Greek to do that; it might take Greek to ‘teach’ (διδάσκαλος), and there are lots of speaking tasks Paul charges Timothy with… but not all preaching is teaching; and I’m not sure all preachers need to be teachers, or all senior pastors… Especially if good teachers exist who are able to teach both churches and pastors and share the task of proclaiming the Gospel as God’s word to both the church and the world. I suspect Paul gets Timothy to do this stuff because this is part of who God has made Timothy to be, where the ‘your calling’ is specifically a reflection of Timothy’s character, gifts, and the roles God has called him to within the church… I’m not sure all preachers need to be all of Timothy; nor do all people employed or appointed as overseers in the church. Paul, like Timothy, occupies several ‘roles’ that he sees as distinct (which are duplicated in Timothy, and are no doubt a useful combo when there’s an individual (like Con or John) who can preach and teach).

And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.— 2 Timothy 1:11, 13-14

The priesthood of all believers involves, on one level, making all believers preachers; especially corporately as all believers are participants in the body. It’s also the Gospel that is the substance of Paul’s roles here; it’s not like he proclaims one thing and teaches another…

And here’s a bit of a problem borne out of Dickson’s Anglicanism; where the default model of ministry is to have the individual priest-as-overseer, as opposed to a congregational model (like the Presbyterians) where not all elders/presbyters ‘teach’ (or need to know Greek), but perhaps all preach. The implications of the imperative in John Dickson’s post are challenging in a system of church governance that sees elders as teachers, and preachers, but not as the pastor-teacher at the heart of Anglican churches.The quote may work better in that context (though it may also expose some limitations of that context). The Anglican Church in Sydney has a view of the function of the weekly gathering and sermon that seems to be largely, if not exclusively, oriented towards teaching believers (this is called the Knox-Robinson Ecclesiology); not to see it as the body gathered to preach the Gospel to itself (and thus encourage, equip and build up believers for their task as a priesthood of all believers), and to the lost.

If Con’s statement, in its natural reading, suggests that to proclaim the Gospel one must have a detailed working knowledge of Greek, then this is a problem. It’s even, I think, a problem if the argument is ‘to be the pastor of a local church one must have a detailed working knowledge of Greek,’ it might actually be a function of Anglican ecclesiology that their understanding of a preacher-teacher is such that the person occupying that office must have a detailed working knowledge of Greek to do what they are ordained to do; but that’s a fairly narrow theological context. There’s a couple more Greek words to know that’ll help wrap all this up…

6. ήθος (Ethos)

Definition: “character” that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterise a community, nation, or ideology.

I think beyond holding to the logos of the Gospel, and so the sense that we know things about God (theology) when by the Spirit we see the dead and raised Jesus Christ as Lord and Christ, and this as good news that we’re to believe; the ethos that the Gospel creates in us as the Spirit transforms us into the image of Jesus, is one of the only other real must for a preacher (and for a preacher-pastor, ie one we might appoint as an overseer/elder in our churches as the person with responsibility); and it’s a Greek word.

But it’s a weird one. Because the word ethos is only in the Bible once, and it’s in a quote from a Greek poet (“Bad company corrupts good character.” in 1 Corinthians 15)… but in proclamation or persuasive speech (which preaching is), ethos is all about the character of the speaker; and ethos really matters for preachers; it’s of fundamental importance, more important even than being able to preach (no matter how good your Greek is); if you don’t have the character of a preacher; one where you embody the virtues of your message; you’re disqualified no matter how good your preaching is, or how good your Greek is… When Paul is talking to the preacher-teacher-overseer types he’s trained, Timothy and Titus, and suggesting they go about training and appointing preacher-teacher-overseers as he has, his emphasis is on character; because our preaching lives and dies by our ethos (because our ethos is the demonstration of the Spirit’s work within us, and of us belonging to the kingdom we proclaim)…

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap. — 1 Timothy 3:2-7


The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. — Titus 1:5-8

You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance…

Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us. — Titus 2:1-2, 6-8

It’s ethos that shapes the way our presentation of the Gospel is heard; and Paul often appeals to his, both his great love for the people he is speaking to, and his embodying of the way of the Cross (which is his message).

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. Instead, we were like young children among you.

Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. — 1 Thessalonians 2:3-9

These two bits from 2 Corinthians 4 (within a letter that is ultimately, in one sense, a defence of Paul’s ethos as more important than the impressive ‘pathos’ or ‘ethos’ the Corinthians are looking for, because his posture is shaped by the logos; the message of the crucified king.

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God…

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. — 2 Corinthians 4:2. 7-12

7.σῶμα (soma)

Definition: Body. (also, as a bonus from the passage below in terms of how this body functions as one body, many parts: συμφέρω, to ‘carry with others,’ to help, be profitable, be expedient)

A lot of the weight on the shoulders of the ‘preacher’ as envisaged by Con’s imperative, and John’s defence of it, rest on just how big the body is that Paul is talking about here; whether we emphasise the universal church or the local church; and then how that plays out in how we appoint leaders in different communities. If each local church is a disconnected and largely autonomous body with one paid staff member; then sure, it makes sense to insist that staff member to not just be a generalist, but to specialise in the core bits of teaching, preaching, and overseeing. But I think that’s a big if; especially in the context of ministry within a body that has some oversight (a denomination, like the Anglicans or Presbyterians), where that body takes responsibility for training and appointing (or ordaining) the preacher-teacher, and especially in the context of a denomination where the oversight includes providing and policing a doctrinal framework. It’s really important that some people in these structures know Greek; some of them must. Especially those responsible for educating employed preachers (in theological colleges), and for making decisions or providing insight into doctrinal matters (but even then you need your doctrine experts and church history experts too). Preachers (all of us, and people employed as preacher-pastors) should know why Greek is profoundly important to our ministry (in whatever role we’re in) and that translations always involve some human interpretation; much as we should know why history and theology are important, and we should know who to turn to, in the wider body, for help in understanding and communicating God’s truth to the world; but as a preacher I don’t have to be the ‘body of Christ’ with all its giftings and doing all its roles by myself.

To be part of the church, both local, and universal, is to be part of the body of Jesus together; and so to work together in preaching the Gospel of Jesus to our world. To that end we are equipped, differently, by God so that each member of the body plays its part. The church must know Greek (and Hebrew) and retain that knowledge such that enough people know it to have educated and discerning discussions about the meaning of Greek words; but do preachers in individual churches need to know Greek? I don’t think so. I think to insist on that would be to sign both a missiological death knell, but also to undermine the richness of possible life together where we benefit from hearing one another’s voices… voices employed in the activity of preaching; voices that bring different gifts to the table and who can accommodate the message of the Gospel; thus making God known; for different types of people in our world. If all our churches and ministers are trained the same, to think the same, and preach the same, you’ve got the sort of franchise-like benefit that comes with being able to walk into any McDonalds in Australia and have roughly the same dining experience; but McDonalds isn’t feeding millions of Australians; there’s a quality control that comes from that, but no sense of imagination or adventure or ability to get good nourishing food into new communities. I’m thankful for Con’s voice, and for John’s voice, for precisely this reason; they bring something to the table that I (and most mere mortals) can’t; but for them to push a line that makes a particular gifting an imperative for what is a task for all believers (preaching); and for the body corporately; I think is a terrible and damaging mistake; much better to know just these 7 Greek words than to spend your time pursuing a narrow picture of what the church could be (and is called to be) for the world; much better to hold our gifts in common and find ways to hear many more voices than to narrow the field of voices worth listening to to those who’ve achieved proficiency in an ancient (but not unimportant) language.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good (συμφέρω). To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. — 1 Corinthians 12:4-12



John Dickson on #qanda

I’m thankful Australian Christianity has spokespeople who don’t play the stupid combative game that Q&A seems to thrive on. John Dickson continued in Peter Jensen’s fine tradition (not Pell’s so much, thankfully).

science plus Jesus

Image Credit: Australian Christian News

I really appreciated his willingness to charitably cede points, and agree with others on the panel in order to make the most important point, and to push on despite being interrupted to get his key message across. This is a paraphrase, I only started typing what he was saying about halfway through… but I thought this bit was the highlight. The transcript is now available, and I’ve included some other highlights below.

“you’ve got to ask yourself the question: is there any evidence on the world stage that this God we think is maybe just a mind has touched the earth in a tangible way? And for me, if you are asking me why do I think there’s a God, it’s this philosophy of science, plus the life of Jesus.”

There were some great #qanda tweets on screen tonight too that indicated Dickson’s approach, and the substance of his answers, was appreciated by the non-Christians in the audience.

I’m sure others are going to be more or less excited about his treatment of science – but historically, there’s little doubt that science arose on the back of a Christian desire to know more about God’s creation, so there is something nice about not tossing science under the bus while acknowledging that it is a movable feast – a point Krauss made very strongly over and over again – science isn’t set in stone, it’s an ongoing discussion of the evidence, and what Dickson demonstrated is that a robust Christian faith has nothing to fear from science – because it’s all about Jesus, and understanding how the Bible relates to the God who created the world reaching out to touch it in the person, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s worth pointing out that while Dickson accepted a truckload of science that some Christians might be unhappy with – including stuff about the age of the earth and evolution – he wasn’t asked about the historicity of Adam, which is where a lot of the theological weight in the debate rests – he also didn’t say anything disputable about the content of Genesis 1-2, what might be in dispute is what to do with his genre observations… and being honest about the history, intentions, usefulness, and limitations of science while being clear about who Jesus is, in a program that was trending worldwide on Twitter, is, I think, a win. The program format limits the panelists’ ability to come back and clarify or expand on the points they make – so while I’ve read a bunch of people throwing rocks at Dickson, on Twitter, in the comments here, etc – I think you’ve got to take the format into account.

Here were some bits from Dickson that I thought were just stellar…

“I agree with almost everything Lawrence just said actually except I would beg to differ about whether science can actually produce an ethic. I think human beings produce an ethic and we decide whether to use science positively or negatively according to our world view and history is littered with examples of science being used brilliantly, ethically so, and times when it’s used badly. I disagree that science has any ethical import. It’s a neutral discipline and it’s a wonderful discipline. The little quips that I heard throughout about science is all about humility and so on I love. In fact Peter Harrison of Oxford University, who is one of the world’s leading historians of science, thinks that it was a revolution in this doctrine of humility that flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries that got science going in Europe in part. It’s not a total explanation but that as Augustine philosophy developed, which basically said human beings are flawed so we need better techniques. We can’t trust our brains. We need to observe, and this Augustinian philosophy grew out of Christianity, as you know, and so Christianity probably is, in part, responsible for science in the first place. I agree that it shouldn’t stick its head in now and tell the scientists what to do. My view is let the scientists do the science. My view is let the scientists do the science and let religious believers do what they do.”

This bit (Family First can learn from this one)…

“The only thing I want to pick up Lawrence with is to say to call it child abuse, to me there are two problems with this. One, it so inflames the conversation and I think the new atheism breeds of this kind of inflamed kind of conversation. The second thing I find very uncomfortable about it is that anyone in the audience who has actually been abused finds that a very odd use of that very loaded term. I know you don’t mean it like that but it’s like someone saying “Oh, that’s a holocaust”. There is one holocaust.”

This was the absolute gold.

JOHN DICKSON: “We live in a universe that operates according to these elegant, beautiful laws and when I read your book this week I was more convinced that that’s the case. And this universe, operating according to these elegant laws, has produced minds that now understand the laws, especially this mind next to us. And so this, to me, all looks and this is not a proof for God but I’m just saying why a lot of people think the God thing has a lot going for it, the whole thing looks rational. The whole thing looks set up to be known. Now, only known in a rational, like the God of Einstein, so then you’ve got to ask yourself the question: is there any evidence on the world stage that this God we think is maybe just a mind has touched the earth in a tangible way? And for me, if you are asking me why do I think there’s a God, it’s this philosophy of science, plus the life of Jesus.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, yeah, but hold on. There was a bait and switch there that I object to and that was that…

JOHN DICKSON: Can I get to the end of the bait?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, you said Jesus and then you started going off and we were no longer – okay.

JOHN DICKSON: So what I’m saying is you ask yourself the question: is there any tangible thing in the history of the world that looks like contact from the God we suspect might be there? The overwhelming – I think overwhelming evidence points in the direction of Jesus, his life, his teaching and his healings, his death and resurrection. And when I come to believe that, this opens up the world to me. It is like CS Lewis saying “I believe in Christianity for the same reason I believe in the sun, not because I can look at it but because by it I see everything”. And, for me, Christianity explains the world I live in in such a spooky and deep way that I find I feel I have met the God I had a hunch was there based only on the beautiful elegant (indistinct)…

TONY JONES: Okay. All right. So now we’ve moved into the – I was going to say I would like Lawrence to respond to that. We have moved into the area of intuition now and perhaps…

JOHN DICKSON: And history.”

I barely watch Q&A anymore – five panelists is far too many. Tonight would have been sensational had it just been Krauss and Dickson, the others (as much as I like Tanya Plibersek) added nothing to the discussion, and there were too many times where misunderstandings were glossed over and not resolved in order for the pollies to get their bits about climate change in.

Did you catch it? What’d you think?

Hearing her voice: teaching, preaching, and a complementarian ethos

If you haven’t been following along on the interwebs, a hornets nest has been kicked and then ignited with the release of three Zondervan e-books about women and preaching, and whether or not they should do it.

I’ve read one of these, Hearing Her Voice, by John Dickson, the following review should come with the same caveats I included when I reviewed Promoting the Gospel: the best kept secret of Christian mission – I think John Dickson is excellent, I love his published body of work, and have found him helpful at just about every step of the way on my journey from Christian kid to theological student.

In this book we get more of Dickson’s very solid hermeneutical model applied to a pretty tricky question, and particularly applied to a verse that creates quite a few difficulties for the modern church. Seriously, he is, I think, the model of what being a careful interpreter of Scripture looks like, there’s a great para in the book that outlines his approach to using history as a tool for exegesis, and I commend it to you.

I was going to include quotes from the book – but this post is already almost 6,000 words long.

The question at the heart of this book – well, there are two questions, I think – and perhaps three – is what is “teaching?” Is preaching teaching? And if not, can women preach in church?

What’s not up for grabs for Dickson is the real strength of his work – he’s big on the authority of Scripture, big on consistently reading and exegeting it with the original readers and meaning in mind, and big on the principle that while male and female are equal in God’s sight, we are different.

I feel like I should throw in a few disclaimers at the start so you know where I’m coming from…

  • I’m aware of the dangers of being a “privileged” and unoppressed class speaking out on this issue – a white, anglo-saxon, male, protestant voice in this debate needs to be pretty mindful of his cultural background and relative freedom to make proclamations that appear to come at a cost to others. (UPDATE: If you’re reading this post in the present day, post 2014, I’m also a guy who occupies a pulpit — even more ‘privilege’ to account for in this conversation).
  • I love the concept of a priesthood of all believers – it goes without saying that this includes men and women – I think it’s biblical, I think we’re all called to be on mission together, and equipped by God to serve as part of the body of believers as we serve and love one another and try to reach people together.
  • I think there are lots of women who are gifted preachers, teachers, and evangelists. I don’t see any gender specific traits that make being able to show someone else that Jesus is the Christ a particularly male act. This isn’t an “innate” issue, or a “masculinity” issue, men are not innately more competent in this area than women.
  • I’m also a complementarian – I think our different genders are a good and necessary part of what it means to be human. I think we’re different but equal.
  • I agree that there are lots of roles open to women that we’ve essentially closed because we’re scared of transgressing in this area – including prophecy, exhortation, partnering as “gospel workers,” etc.
  • I think the gender stuff at the fall is pretty interesting, and is certainly something Paul has in mind in this verse. While this is pretty absent in Dickson’s book, it is something Mike Bird, who wrote a second book in the series, spends some time considering – but I haven’t read that yet.
  • I’m wary about tossing out 2,000 years of church tradition, particularly the interpretive traditions from people who took the Bible seriously – though I’m also aware that all interpreters are fallible, and texts, and interpretations of those texts are the product of different cultures. I’m interested in a tendency, beyond Dickson’s book, to pit current movements of the Spirit through female preachers against historic movements, through tradition. I’m also pretty sure the Spirit of God is able to speak, and point to Jesus, through all sorts of wrong things we might, as humans, adopt. Our fallibility has never been an obstacle to the Spirit moving people to faith.
  • I’ll also presuppose that how we do church – including who preaches – is part of our ethos, so that the decision about who preaches is, in part, a decision we make about our presentation of the gospel.

What is a sermon? Teaching? Exhortation? Preaching?

I have some reservations about how Dickson approaches the Greek language (and how others do too) – but this is probably because they are experts at Greek and I am not. I think word studies have some merit, but I think assume too much about the deliberation that goes into the use of particular words, rather than paying heed to the vibe of a paragraph, or whole letter. I think words often have a broad semantic range that overlaps with other words, and you kind of use those ranges together to create new concepts – Dickson thinks this happens with “teaching” and “authority” in the verse in question… So I don’t really like arguments based on word studies – and most of my response won’t really engage with the question of whether or not “teaching” or in the Greek, didaskein, is a technical word for a particular act, or a general word for the passing on of knowledge – this is where the debate is being fought out on the interwebs by Lionel Windsor, and Dickson himself (in a great model of how you can disagree with people without calling their character into question…

Like I say – I’m not an expert on Greek, and don’t pretend to be, and I’m fairly sure that words can also be used technically to mean very narrow things – but I do think literary context guides interpretation… and I think one of the concerns of Paul’s letter to Timothy is to help Timothy, and the church, think rightly about questions of pastoral leadership – including the establishment of a role that seems to be for men and includes carrying the responsibility of preaching and teaching, within the church.

I don’t think Dickson necessarily disagrees with this approach to language – though his treatment of “teaching” here is very similar to his treatment of “evangelism” in Promoting the Gospel. He allows for general  use of words, while suggesting we need to pay heed to the technical meanings that may have been in operation in the first century.

He spends significant time making the case that “teaching” isn’t directly transferrable to what we do in the pulpit of a modern church each Sunday – and his argument seems to have some merit. I don’t think preaching is the teaching, in the technical sense, that Dickson identifies. So I’m almost happy to cede his whole argument, on one level – if the Sunday sermon is exhortation, as he suggests, or prophecy as the Puritans suggest, and not teaching (as Lionel Windsor suggests it is) – then I think he’s right – women should be able to exhort, prophecy, and do all the things that Paul specifically or implicitly allows, and even all the things he doesn’t forbid.

Anyway – here’s the passage in question, with a bit of context. From 1 Timothy 2…

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

In 1 Timothy 3, when he’s establishing the qualifications of a deacon, and an overseer he gives a set of ethos heavy principles, like being “above reproach” – which presumably has something to do with not undermining his leadership of others, and “be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” It is assumed in these verses that the person in question is a man – building off his argument in chapter 2.

In 1 Timothy 5 it appears he assumes these elders will be the people doing the “preaching and teaching”…

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

Then, in 2 Timothy 4, he kind of spells out what Timothy is called to do, under the umbrella of “preaching”…

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teachingFor the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced by the way Dickson groups “teaching” and “authority” into one command, rather than two separate but related commands based on the same Old Testament/created order principle… and I think there’s another reason, an ethos reason, when it comes to how we persuade people about the message of the gospel that means we should think carefully about how we use, or emphasise, gender and authority in church gatherings… which I’ll get to below. Somewhere. I think what is done from the pulpit is an act of authority – and listening is an act of submission.

Where I think Windsor is right to go (but slightly wrong in where he lands – I think), and where I think Dickson is wrong – is on what the sermon actually is. In sum, Windsor thinks it’s teaching, and Dickson sells teaching short, Dickson thinks the sermon is exhortation, or something analogous to that – and thus thinks women can give sermons.

What Preaching is not…

I’d argue, along with Dickson, that preaching is not teaching, we’ve hastily drawn an analogous line from the Bible’s use of teaching to our modern equivalent, and that’s come at a cost.

  • Preaching is not simply teaching – though it may involve the transmission of information from someone with knowledge to someone without.
  • Preaching is not strictly exhortation though it may encourage.
  • Preaching is not simply prophecy, though it may speak God’s word to people at a particular time… though in a sense a good sermon is all of these things. 

This is one of the areas I think Dickson’s argument breaks down – you don’t have to look much past Paul to find someone who exercises more than one of the “offices” of word ministry that Dickson seems to suggest are in operation… Paul also suggests all of these things are part of Timothy’s job as a preacher (2 Tim 4).

It’s quite possible that there’ll be an overlap of different styles of speaking in any particular speech, much as there was in just about any form of first century oratory. Where Cicero, in Brutus, bags out some orators for being too specialised in one area, because the idea was that public speakers could adopt a wide range of styles, from the boring didactic history lecture, to the witty declamation of an opponent on the election trail.

What a sermon (preaching) is…

Preaching is preaching. It has a New Testament equivalent – and an Old Testament equivalent. It has a Greek word – kerusso – which had a pre-existing technical meaning, and a meaning that developed through Christian usage, and it appears to be something like being a herald and proclaiming good news, with authority.

I’d argue that if one:

then our sermons are not “teaching” in the sense identified by Dickson – but “preaching”… in the sense that the word is used throughout the New Testament.

Our sermons should point people to Jesus and the kingdom of God, attempt to persuade people to accept the message, and declare that, Jesus is Lord – This essentially does nothing for the gender question but move the goalposts, so the question is not “can women teach?” but “can women preach?” – so Dickson’s insights, while useful, are potentially irrelevant to the question.

I would say that I think preaching is an act of authority – but the ultimate authority rests in the same person it rests in when Jesus is challenged about the authority behind his preaching – God and his Christ. When we preach faithfully we are simply pointing to the authority of Jesus. The way authority is exercised over the church is ultimately in the preaching of the word (and the faithful passing on of the apostolic traditions) as they relate to Jesus, not the appointment of humans who have particular gifts in particular areas. We judge a preacher’s authority on their adherence to the divine logos, Christ-made-flesh and Christ-crucified — the message of the Bible, not on their particular ability as a speaker. And I want to make the case below that we should ultimately profoundly be assessing a preacher on their ethos — their willingness to have the truth of this logos shape who they are and how they preach. I want to make the case that this isn’t a new way of thinking about what preaching is – first from the Reformers, and then, after a little ethos excursus from the New Testament (though the order should be reversed – the NT stuff is pretty long).

Preaching in the Reformed world

Both Luther and Calvin (Institutes, 4.1.5) put a pretty high value on preaching , if preaching involved the gospel – so much that preaching was more important than the sacraments in terms of constituting Christ’s presence in the gathering of the body – this was a big deal in a time where people were killed over what they thought happened at communion.

Calvin says:

“We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose… Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.”

Both (Luther Large Catechism (PDF, p 72), Calvin Institutes 4.1.1, 4)  saw the church as the “mother” of believers – responsible, ordinarily and under God, for giving birth to new believers and nurturing the faith of existing believers – and it did this, for both groups, in the same way – by preaching the gospel of Jesus. Not legalism. Not morals. Not ethics. Not just words of encouragement. But the gospel.

The gospel will have necessary implications for our morality and ethics – and it will necessarily be encouraging as we consider that the creator of the universe sent his son to earth to buy us, for a relationship, to make us his children. But our sermons that do all these things do these things because they first declare the truths of the gospel, and these things are part of the persuasive case the gospel makes for those who hear it.

The preaching of the gospel is one of the “marks of the church” for Reformed people.

The Westminster Confession of Faith essentially follows both Calvin and Luther on this point – it says the church is responsible for the “gathering and perfecting of saints” (WCF VII, XXV), and that the preaching of the word is one of the two marks of the church (along with the administration of the sacraments).

“And particular Churches, which are members thereof [the universal, visible, church], are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

In XV the Confession says ministers are to preach: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ,” and in XXI it says faithful preaching is part of worship. This preaching is conducted by these “ministers of the gospel”…

I like this quote from Calvin that Justin Taylor shared last week:

“This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. . . . Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Biblical, expository, sermons will point people to Jesus Christ in a way that declares his kingdom has come at the cross. It is preaching, not teaching.

An argument from “authority” – an ethos consideration

I think a case can be made that Paul’s prohibition on women exercising authority in the 1 Timothy 2 passage refers to what is going on in the gathering, and works a bit with the similar prohibition in 1 Corinthians, to establish a principle, rooted in creation and the fall, for what happens when the church meets and the gospel is preached… as an authoritative act.

But even if that case is weak – I wonder if there’s an ethos driven, cross-shaped, argument for women letting men preach, if sermons are preaching, and preaching is an act of persuasion where both pathos and ethos are as relevant as what we say… even if they are more gifted than their male counterparts, which is surely often the case.

A willingness to submit is part of the testimony of the gospel of the cross – as is a willingness to sacrificially not use our gifts for the sake of others… I’d argue Paul is essentially doing this in Corinth when he avoids using his full rhetorical prowess, that he demonstrates in Acts, in order to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” as he teaches them, knowing what he does about their culture and context – and the sinful desires they have to place value in their abilities or flashy man made idols. I reckon its possible that gender equality is a bit of an idol in our culture – I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing, idols are good things turned into ultimate things… but I wonder if a refusal to give in to cultural pressure on the gender front, voluntarily, might be a hugely important part of our testimony.

This is where a little bit of trepidation kicks in on my part – because I recognise that I’m a guy telling gifted women they can’t do what they’re gifted to do.

But, I think it’s possible that If we believe that:

  • genders are different, but that people are equal in value,
  • that the gospel does away with inequalities that people might establish on the basis of differences (Gal 3:28),
  • that submission isn’t a statement of inequality, this is where some smart egalitarians like Miroslav Volf depart, but it must be true because if we believe that the Trinity is made up of three parties who are equally God, we need to be able to say that Jesus can submit to the father without calling this equality into question (in academic terms this is a question of whether you can have functional subordination alongside ontological equality, I think the answer has to be yes, if the submission is voluntary, an act of love, offered without coercion),

then we should be able to sacrificially let men do the preaching… even if there are women out there who are better equipped to do the job… because this is part of our testimony, and our act of testifying – to the sacrifice of Jesus, for his church – just as it is in marriage (Ephesians 5).

The act of preaching is an act of authority – but this authority isn’t establishing an inequality – and if it does create such an inequality, then questions have to be asked about whether or not the guy is doing his job – just like in a marriage. Because a cruciform preacher who humbly uses the gifts God has given to build up the church and point people to Jesus through the persuasive preaching of the gospel won’t, if logos, pathos, and ethos stack up, be in a position to create any inequality except the inequality created by considering everybody else better than yourself…

Our value to God isn’t caught up in our ability to serve him – with the gifts that he has given us, nor is our testimony – I would argue our testimony is caught up in our ability to live cross-shaped lives where we imitate Jesus, who despite having all authority and abilities in his grasp, and being equipped to do otherwise gave himself up for us, as an example, here’s Philippians 2:

2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, anyparticipation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselvesLet each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of othersHave this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Perhaps the way we testify to our unity, our like mindedness, and avoid promoting our gifts, interests, and selves, is to be prepared to not do things we could do, as part of our testimony to Jesus, and to the creator who sent him, and made men and women different.

Communicating why we’re doing this, and valuing, affirming, and giving avenues for gifted women to be effective members of the body and servants of the mission of God is obviously pretty tricky – and one of the great strengths of Dickson’s work is that it’s motivated by exactly this concern.

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Personal evangelism, oratory, and the fine art of cross-shaped persuasion

Like it or not, a recent article in the Briefing has fired up an old argument on personal evangelism that Gen Ys like me, think of in some way analogous to the worship wars… it happened in the past, and we’re slightly too post-modern to think there’s only one right answer to the question.

In a nutshell, John Dickson’s excellent book Promoting the Gospel (and other work) suggested that “evangelists” are a special category of person, much like preachers and teachers – and while all Christians are called to be part of the body of Christ, which is called to participate, together, in the Great Commission, and perhaps, the “Mission of God,” we’re not all called to play the specific role of heralds of King Jesus, proclaiming, via words, directly, and persuasively, the case for Jesus. Now, he says we should take whatever opportunities we have to give the reason for the hope that we have – but he wants the emphasis to be more on what we can achieve together, and what we can achieve in the way that we live our lives, and love the people around us, pointing people to Jesus. You can read my review of the book here.

Some people didn’t like that idea. They had an argument. Now, Tony Payne, at the Briefing, has (not intentionally), restarted the argument with his piece on Personal Evangelism.

Like a few others, I can’t really tell the difference between what he say the individual’s role is, and what John Dickson says the individual’s role is, which seems to boil down to using the skills God gives you as gifts for God’s kingdom and for those outside it.

It seems most people accept these two truths, but reach different conclusions:

1. We’re each called to serve God with the different gifts he has given us, as we worship him and take part in his mission (or worship him by taking part in his mission).

2. Some people are better at evangelism, and even human relationships, than others.

It’s this last bit of the logical chain that seems to divide people.

3. If people are better at evangelism than others, we should assume that they are gifted in that area and see part of our role, in the body, as freeing, supporting, and equipping those people to serve with those gifts. So that we’re on mission together.

Other people seem to say this is an area where gifting doesn’t come into play – because we all have to evangelise. But we’re all evangelising in that point 3.

I wonder if it’s easier to make a judgment, like Dickson’s, that not all people are evangelists if you are one, and if part of your job is helping clean up the mess that well-intentioned people make – perhaps, for example, those who stand on street corners and yell at people about sin and judgment (this isn’t really a post about the relative merits of street preaching).


I think Paul was an evangelist. That “evangelist” was a role that distinguished him from other figures in the early church. That he wasn’t the only “evangelist” – and that he wanted people to imitate him, in their lives as they were able, even if they weren’t especially gifted as evangelists – because promoting the gospel is about more than words – by sacrificially offering their gifts to the work of the Gospel. And we’re one body. Working for one mission. Together.

“Personal evangelism” is a bizarre outcome of western individualism being applied to the work of the church. We might live in an age of individualism – but part of the message of the gospel might have to be a counter-cultural indictment of that idea.

But each of us is called to take part in mission and evangelism, with the people we know. I’m going to suggest, in the next 3,000 words, that when it comes to evangelism as persuasion, all Christians are called to evangelise by ethos – being Christ like, and to be prepared to do logos (logic and knowledge about God and the Gospel), and I wonder if “pathos” and a strong mix of logos and ethos is what marks an “evangelist.”

So. Here are some thoughts I have, after thinking about how Paul frames his evangelism and approach to communication, that I think are somewhat relevant to the debate. This will be part of my Masters project next year, so shh… don’t tell anybody…

Oratory, Cicero, Paul, and Evangelism

Aristotle literally wrote the book On Rhetoric. He said there were three elements of successful persuasion:

1. Ethos: Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.

2. Pathos: Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.

3. Logos: Persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.

After Aristotle, these elements were bounced around in different shaped triangles depending on which element you thought was more important. There were literal schools of thought, like the Attic School, who thought flashy eloquence, which played with the emotion, were easier and more convincing than dry, boring speeches that were full of logic. And there were other more classical types, like Cicero, who wanted to try to balance out the triangle into something more equilateral.

I’m fairly convinced that Paul, who was a Roman citizen from Tarsus, was educated in rhetoric in Tarsus, which had famous rhetorical schools (see Strabo, the historian, on Tarsus). Cicero was the governor of Tarsus just after he wrote De Oratore – this is a guess, but I reckon there would have been a bit of Cicero on the curriculum of rhetorical training in Tarsus.

Cicero didn’t like the flashy, insubstantial, approach to Rhetoric championed by the Attic school of rhetoric, and he criticised it extensively.

Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians, is engaging with the rhetorical grandchildren of the Attic movement – the Second Sophistic – and he deploys pretty much the same argument against them that Cicero did, championing the triumph of substance, both in content – or logos – and character – or ethos, over style – the ability to speek eloquently (pathos).

Paul speaks against the Corinthian desire to have the flashiest communicators lead their churches –

Here’s an interesting comparison between something Cicero says about approaching a speech with trembling, and what Paul says about his approach in Corinth…


For the better the orator, the more profoundly is he frightened of the difficulty of speaking, and of the doubtful fate of a speech, and of the anticipations of an audience… While as for him who is un-ashamed — as I see is the case with most speakers, — I hold him deserving not merely of reprimand, but of punishment as well. Assuredly, just as I generally perceive it to happen to yourselves, so I very often prove it in my own experience, that I turn pale at the outset of a speech, and quake in every limb and in all my soul

And Paul:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Paul is subverting the rhetorical expectations of his audience – but I’d say he’s doing it by harking back to an older rhetorical convention. He condemns the Corinthian addiction to eloquent oratory, and its encroachment on the church. But this isn’t to say that Paul wasn’t capable of presenting well when the need arose – Acts portrays him as a pretty accomplished orator, as comfortable preaching to a group of religious philosophers in Athens, quoting their ancient poets back at them during his Areopagus address (Acts 17:28), in court rooms (Acts 24), and before councils (Acts 23:1-9), governors (Acts 24, 25:1-12), and kings (Acts 25:13-26:32) – all places that orators would commonly perform their tasks as entertainers, philosophers, or advocates.

Imitation isn’t just about flattery

Here’s another cool thing before I get to the point (hint – I think a special role of evangelist might potentially be related to the the orator – whose job it is to persuade).

Here’s what Cicero says about choosing who you copy.

“For nothing is easier than to imitate a man*s style of dress, pose or gait. Moreover, if there is a fault, it is not much trouble to appropriate that and to copy it ostentatiously… he did not know how to choose the model whom he would most willingly resemble, and it was positively the faults in his chosen pattern that he elected to copy. But he who is to proceed aright must first be watchful in making his choice, and afterwards extremely careful in striving to attain the most excellent qualities of the model he has approved… “

This is pretty much what the Corinthians were doing in Corinth and in the Second Sophistic movement – 100 years after Cicero wrote this. So he didn’t convince everybody. Here’s how Paul addresses this practice…

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

11 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

This comes a bit after Paul says he is prepared to become all things to all men to win some, in 1 Cor 9, which Dickson really nicely sums up in his book:

“Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did. It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved.”

I would suggest that one area where Paul may mean we can do what he did – if our gifts and skill sets allow – is imitating him by being a faithful persuader, or evangelist, for the cause of the gospel. I think Dickson is right to warn that we won’t all have Paul’s training, abilities, or specific calling – so won’t all feel comfortable doing what he does, but, within limits, we can imitate him by using what we have to serve the kingdom of God (cf Romans 12).

The foundational importance of Ethos

Here’s what I’m thinking. It’s not rocket science. But it has the benefit of this oratory stuff backing it up. We’re all called to persuade people of the truth of the gospel, with whatever we have at our disposal – but the most powerfully underrated element of persuasion is not words and knowledge (logos), or fine sounding words that appeal to the emotions (eloquence and pathos), but personal character and living out what you believe (ethos).

I’d say we’re all called to live like Jesus, as an act of evangelism (though also because that’s the goal of the Spirit’s work in us – see Romans 8:29) – but we’re not all called to persuade with pathos (or even logos – beyond knowing the essentials – Christ, and him crucified).

Here’s what Cicero says about the importance of believing your own press (or the press that you’re producing).

“I give you my word that I never tried, by means of a speech, to arouse either indignation or compassion, either ill-will or hatred, in the minds of a tribunal, without being really stirred myself, as I worked upon their minds, by the very feelings to which I was seeking to prompt them.”

But showing your character (and having character to show) is an essential part of Cicero’s approach to persuasion. Though he was prepared to fudge character where necessary.

“Now feelings are won over by a man’s merit, achievements or reputable life, qualifications easier to embellish, if only they are real, than to fabricate where non-existent… Moreover so much is done by good taste and style in speaking, that the speech seems to depict the speaker’s character. For by means of particular types of thought and diction, and the employment besides of a delivery that is unruffled and eloquent of good-nature, the speakers are made to appear upright, well-bred and virtuous men.”

But virtue is important, because bad people can use oratory to bad ends.

“For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen”

Here’s how Paul shows that he really lives, and believes, his message, when he again defends his lack of eloquence in 2 Corinthians 10-13.

He defends his ministry as a triumph of ethos over the eloquence of the “super apostles” – even though he can out apostle the super apostles. He makes it clear that imitating Christ means being prepared to imitate Christ for others, here are a couple of what I think are the important bits that make this case… in Paul’s reluctant string of boasting in 2 Cor 11:

23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles,danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

And 2 Cor 12:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.

What Ethos based gospel persuasion looks like

Paul lives his message. I’d argue this is what he calls all Christians to imitate – demonstrating the strength of the gospel in our weakness. Imitating the crucified Jesus.

But he also knows and speaks his message appropriately to his circumstances. I’m not sure this skill is transferrable to all people everywhere, this certainly isn’t the case from experience. This is where I think the evangelist role might kick in – people who are skilled in speaking and persuading people regardless of their background.

For the Corinthians, whose ethos was broken by their pursuit of status-boosting eloquence, he resolved to know nothing but Christ, and present him plainly.

At the Areopagus (Acts 17), he quoted poets, turned his audience against each other by pointing out the philosophical differences between Stoics and Epicureans, and appeared to stick to the conventions of presenting a new God to the Areopagus for their consideration.

When he was in front of a Jewish council, he turned Pharisee and Sadducee against each other because he knew his audience, and knew how to communicate with them.

When he’s talking to Agrippa in Acts 26, he appears to obey the legal rhetorical conventions while also trying to convert the king (Festus, who’s hanging out, listening – says Paul has “great learning”):

24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”

25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Paul uses legal and religious trials, philosophical speeches, and political engagement to present the gospel of Jesus to his audience.

This is evangelism par excellence. I don’t think Christians fail to be Christians when they don’t speak about Jesus at their school council meetings. But I think an evangelist is failing to use their gifts if they can, but don’t.

It’s interesting that this was also the way the early church saw apologetics – both Tertullian and Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Empire, basically asking for a fairer go for Christians, and each of them (partly to make the case that Christianity wasn’t dangerous), spelled out the gospel for their readers.

There’s an interesting objection to this view of what’s going on for Paul – the idea that he’s a specially gifted orator, based on Paul’s own words in 2 Corinthians 11:6:

Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.”

There are a few cool, and convincing responses to this.

First – the “even if” isn’t really a concession, he’s simply dealing with the criticism that has been made about him – that he writes like a rhetorician, but speaks weakly.

Second  – when he says “unskilled in speaking,” the Greek underlying this is transliterally, “idiot” – and it conventionally referred to people who were trained in rhetoric but weren’t professional orators.

Third, and perhaps more important, Paul is placing a high price on knowledge, and plain speaking –  Cicero did too. He suggested you couldn’t be a good orator without either.

On plain speaking:

“…let us select as our models those who enjoy unimpaired health, (which is peculiar to the Attic orators,) rather than those whose abundance is vicious, of whom Asia has produced numbers. And in doing this (if at least we can manage even this, for it is a mighty undertaking) let us imitate, if we can, Lysias, and especially his simplicity of style: for in many places he rises to grandeur. But because he wrote speeches for many private causes, and those too for others, and on very trifling subjects, he appears to be somewhat simple, because he has designedly filed himself down to the standard of the inconsiderable causes which he was pleading.”

On knowledge:

“Yet I maintain that such eloquence as Crassus and Antonius attained could never have been realized without a knowledge of every matter.”

Ethos-based persuasion and evangelism

Interestingly, Dickson picks up on this when it comes to how he defines an evangelist.

First, a bit of a word study to show that evangelism and oratory basically went hand in hand (as, did apologetics).

In the ancient world the noun “gospel” (euangelion) and its verb “telling the gospel” (euangelizomai) were media terms. They always referred to the announcement of happy or important events. News of military victories, national achievements, weddings, births and, in one ancient text, the bargain price of anchovies at the marketplace were all called “gospels”. The modern media term “newsflash” probably comes closest in meaning to the ancient word gospel…

The most well-known “gospels” proclaimed in the ancient world were those announcing the emperors’ achievements. The caesars’ ascensions, conquests and political deeds were all the subject of the gospels of the empire. “Gospel” was very much an imperial term in the period of the New Testament.

His definition of “evangelist” follows this definition of the good news…

“The word literally means gospeller, that is, one who announces the gospel. The term seems to have been coined by the first Christians (it appears nowhere else in Greek literature before the New Testament) as a shorthand way of referring to those in the church who took on the task of proclaiming the life, death and resurrection of God’s Messiah (the gospel) to those for whom this message was still news”

And he doesn’t rule out the option of having gospel conversations with the people you’re in relationships with (so I can’t see how it’s possible he rules out personal evangelism).

In reality, most of our opportunities to speak about Christianity will occur in passing, in the to-and-fro of daily conversation. It should not surprise us, then, that the two clearest passages in the Bible calling on all believers to speak up for the Lord urge them simply to “answer” for the faith—to respond to people’s comments, questions or criticisms with a gentle and gracious reply (Colossians 4:5—6 and 1 Peter 3:15). Most Christians are not “evangelists” (in the technical, New Testament sense of the word) and should not be made to feel the pressure to be something they are not. The Scriptures certainly urge us all to be open about our faith whenever opportunity allows, but doing “the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5) is something God’s Word asks only of some of us.

But here’s the fourth characteristic he identifies for an evangelist (after desire to proclaim Jesus, ability to relate well to people, and Christian maturity).

“An evangelist will be clear with the gospel. I do not just mean clear about what the gospel is-hopefully, that will be all of us. I am talking about clarity in outlining the gospel. This point arises directly from the word “evangelist” itself. A “gospeller” must be particularly able to explain the message plainly. I am not talking about having a gift of the gab or even being an extrovert-clarity does not always go with these. I am talking specifically about an ability to take the truths of the gospel and make them plain to others (key here will be an ability to talk about Christ without jargon, in the everyday language of those who don’t believe).”

I think there’s a good case to be made that there is a specific role within the body of Christ for people who are skilled as modern day orators and keen to use those skills sacrificially, as a gift for others and in an act of worship to God. And I don’t see why you wouldn’t call that role “evangelist.”

I wonder if the pay off, for those championing every member evangelism, is that orators were built for imitation – both Paul and Cicero say it’s important to pick who you imitate. And imitation, of good models, will boost the quality of gospel engagement with the world across the board. Our corporate ability to know and tell the gospel – our logos and pathos – will improve if we recognise, equip, and imitate the right people, and work at knowing complex truths and speaking them plainly.

But the pressure is off, a little bit, at least for evangelism, for those who are worried about not having the right skills for doing the logos and pathos stuff well. Because without a Christ shaped ethos – and a good corporate ethos within the Church – our words are powerless. Our rhetorical triangle is flat, or a point with no foundation.

If we focus on doing the much harder work on getting our character, or ethos, to imitate Paul, but more importantly – to imitate Jesus, that’s going to communicate the gospel clearer than any words we speak – and the words we speak will be much more powerful if we, and others in the body of Christ, are consistent with the way we live, both individually and corporately.

Book Review: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, John Dickson

I’ve found John Dickson tremendously helpful at just about every stage of my Christian life – even when he edited a magazine called Zed magazine that I remember reading as a kid. His books are helpful. His take on public Christianity is pretty paradigmatic for me, and his apparent commitment to excellence – particularly as manifested in his approach to scholarship, and the resources he produces – is something I aspire to.

This comes as a sort of disclaimer to be read to account for my bias in this treatment of his exceptionally useful book – The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips.

This isn’t a new book, it has been around for a while, but we’re doing a series at church this term on connecting with people, where the book is suggested as a good way for understanding what evangelism looks like as a church family – it takes the pressure off a little bit, by lowering the bar – and treating evangelism not just as God’s work – which is a robustly reformed understanding of the task, but as the church’s work. A team effort.

My experience while reading this book was quite bizarre – almost an out of body experience. It was like I was reading my own thoughts written to me. This was scary, and somewhat reassuring. Though I hadn’t read the book until a month ago, this is largely the framework I use when I’m thinking about church, mission, and our role as individuals within those contexts.

My take on his foundational premise – that our lives, our whole lives, essentially function as a declaration of who we are, so we should think about that and live intentionally in a way that our lives are consistent with the gospel, in a way that promotes it – means I think it’s an incredibly useful resource, especially as it applies this concept to real life, it’s not abstract, and its incredibly well argued, with occasional references to the author’s PhD thesis, which I read a lot of for an essay once, and found equally helpful.

Here’s a lynchpin sort of paragraph…

“But perhaps the best kept secret of Christian mission is that the Bible lists a whole range of activities that promote Christ to the world and draw others toward him. These include prayer, godly behaviour, financial assistance, the public praise of God (in church) and, as already mentioned, answering people’s questions. All of these are explicitly connected in the Bible with advancing the gospel and winning people to Christ. They are all “mission” activities, and only a couple of them involve the lips at all.”

But wait. You say, observant reader that you are – this sounds exactly like that Sir Francis of Assisi misquote (h/t Gary Ware) that you don’t like: “always preach the gospel, when necessary use words” – you’ve said before that words are necessary. Thankfully, I’ve also said that I think a whole bunch of other stuff that communicates the truth of the gospel, deliberately, and alongside the use of words, also counts as word ministry (how we live/act, how we sing, multimedia, though I remain unconvinced about gospel mime).

I think words are necessary for word ministry, and for mission, but they aren’t the only part of our testimony. I think this book seeks to avoid people saying “words alone” – because our testimony will be much richer if we’re living them out, together, and letting people who are gifted in particular areas carry the load in those areas.

I like this quote from Augustine on the place of good works.

“Now of all who can with us enjoy God, we love partly those to whom we render services, partly those who render services to us, partly those who both help us in our need and in turn are helped by us, partly those upon whom we confer no advantage and from whom we look for none. We ought to desire, however, that they should all join with us in loving God, and all the assistance that we either, give them or accept from them should tend to that one end.”

Dickson is not denying that the gospel is words – he simply says we promote the gospel with more than words. Importantly he says this:

“Does this mean that people can start believing in Christ without hearing the gospel at all? No. As the apostle Paul makes clear, “faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17). First Peter 3:1 shows us that the gospel’s role in conversion is more complex than we sometimes realise. It is not enough simply to affirm that people are won to faith only through the hearing of the gospel. Let me explain. Leaving aside the important theological observation that all conversion is ultimately the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, let me try and account for conversion from the human side of the equation, which is what Paul and Peter are talking about in the above texts. Humanly speaking, hearing the gospel is the necessary and sufficient cause of faith in Christ. It is necessary inasmuch as people cannot put their faith in Jesus without first learning the gospel about him. It is sufficient in that the gospel can bring people to faith all on its own—it needs no other factor (other than the work of the Holy Spirit). However, none of this means that hearing the gospel is the only cause of faith, or even that it is always the primary cause of faith. Other factors (on the human side of the equation) will frequently play a minor or major role in winning people over to the One revealed in the gospel.”

I could wax lyrical about this book and its benefits for a couple of thousand words – or you could just buy it and read it.

I’ll start with what I thought was a question I would have liked a bit more time spent on, or where I think something could be added – the first is his definition of the gospel…

“The gospel is the announcement that God has revealed his kingdom and opened it up to sinners through the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity… Any account of the Christian gospel that does not narrate the basic content of the books we rightly call the Gospels does not deserve to be called a “gospel outline”. It might be a true and accurate statement of biblical truths—and, for that reason, valuable and useful for our hearers—but it is not the gospel that Jesus said must be preached to all nations (Mark 13:10).”

I largely agree. I think the best three word reduction of the gospel is “Jesus is Lord” – if it was six words it would be “the resurrection shows Jesus is Lord” – but reductions suffer because they are simplifications… I’d want to suggest that while this is an incredibly useful description of the Gospel, it kind of cuts loose the Old Testament, especially creation and fall – which, though I have hesitations about the predominant usage of 2 Ways to Live (seriously, how many other conversations do people walk up to somebody, and unless they’re a professional cartoonist, or playing pictionary, say “can I draw you a picture”), though I have hesitations about this use – starting the gospel account from creation and fall is, I think, an essential part of the gospel narrative, I think John’s gospel, in the prologue, agrees with me, as does Matthew with his fronting of the genealogy – so this insight isn’t precluded by the summary above. I just think making it explicit is useful.

God’s role in creation, as the sole author of creation, is the foundation of his commitment to the act of promoting the gospel, so it’s not absent from his thinking. He says:

“There may be different ways of expressing it but I think I would have to answer this question with the simple statement: there is one God. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible makes the resounding, unapologetic declaration that there is just one Creator and Lord of the world. It begins in the Bible’s opening line: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To ancient readers, this was not simply a sensible way to start a holy book. It was a huge swipe at the entire religious outlook of the time. The opening lines of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, to give just one example from the period, list no fewer than nine separate gods, each with its own part to play in the events leading up to creation. Saying that “God created the heavens and the earth” was tantamount to saying that no other deity was involved in the universe… If there is just one God in the universe, everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord.”

Tying the motivation for preaching to the Lordship of Jesus, rather than to fear of judgment or as some sort of good work, is incredibly freeing – from guilt, and from any sense of obligation, outside of the joyful gratitude that being one of the people of the true Lord of the universe brings. This is very helpful. He says:

“We promote God’s glory to the ends of the earth not principally because of any human need but fundamentally because of God’s/Christ’s unique worthiness as the Lord of heaven and earth. Promoting the gospel to the world is more than a rescue mission (though it is certainly that as well); it is a reality mission. It is our plea to all to acknowledge that they belong to one Lord.”

To which I say: “Amen”…

I think this paradigm really helpfully anchors the good that we do – promoting the Lordship of Jesus should be behind our care for the environment, and our love of other people – we do these things because both creation and people are good objects to love, but we ultimately do them because we live for the Lord Jesus, not ourselves – and the act declares something about that Lordship. It’s a complex relationship. I think “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

“Good deeds must never be thought of as a missionary tactic, a means of getting people onside before hitting them with the gospel (“throwing cakes to children”, as Emperor Julian would say). They are the essential fruit of the gospel. Good works must be done for their own sake, in obedience to the Lord. God’s grace proclaimed in the gospel finds its essential outcome in the godly life of those who believe the gospel. Nevertheless, it is precisely because good deeds are an essential fruit of the gospel that they so powerfully promote the gospel. Although we must not find ourselves “doing good” simply as a gospel ploy, there can be no question that Jesus expected unbelievers to observe our acts of love (for the world and for one another29) and through them to be convinced to worship the source of all love: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).”

He also says:

“Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did. It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved. Every aspect of our lives—including our social lives—can and should be directed toward the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbours.”

Being already convinced of the place of mission in the Old Testament – or the place it should have occupied in Israel’s approach to the nations – I found his stuff on Israel’s role as proclaimers of this truth convincing and helpful. Sadly, there was nothing that specifically supports my theory that the wisdom literature was a model of evangelism through participation in an international wisdom dialogue, as far as I know I’m still essentially alone there… but his understanding of how Israel was to promote the good news of God in their words, their life, their worship, and their distinctiveness from the nations is useful, and surely forms some of the working in developing a Biblical Theology of mission.

The sections relating to what it meant for Israel to evangelise by being Israel is, alone, worth the price of the book. This is one of the money paragraphs:

“Worship by the Book, Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church writes: Israel was called to make God known to unbelieving nations (Ps 105:1) by singing his praises (Ps 105:2). The temple was to be the center of a “world-winning worship.” The people of God not only worship before the Lord but also before the nations (cf. Isa 2:1-4; 56:6-8; Ps 47:1; 100:1-5; 102:18; 117). God is to be praised before all nations, and as he is praised by his people, the nations are summoned and called to join in song. This pattern does not essentially change in the New Testament, where Peter tells a Gentile church to “declare the praises” of him who called us out of darkness. The term cannot merely refer to preaching but must also refer to gathered worship…

Passages like these illustrate just how natural it was for biblical writers to see corporate praise as public proclamation, as a type of evangelism. This doesn’t mean that all gospel proclamation is “praise” but it does mean that all true praise has the potential to be gospel proclamation, for in it we recount the wonders of Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection and return.”

I love it. If you read this post – that won’t come as a surprise.

This leads to a particular approach to how church is conducted – it’s not about being seeker sensitive, but about being clear about who we are praising, about why, and concerned about how we conduct our gatherings – concerned for their quality.

“There are all sorts of reasons some of our churches have visitors – location, architecture, demographics and so on-but, in my experience, the most significant factor is the quality of the church service. By “quality” I do not mean the professionalism of the leader or the standard of technology and music. I mean the degree to which the congregation revels in its experience of praising God and encouraging one another…

I want to stress in the strongest terms that visitor-focused services are not an evangelistic necessity. Normal church meetings conducted exceptionally well will not only inspire the regulars; they will draw in visitors and, through the powerful vehicle of our corporate praise, promote the gospel to them.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this book, in terms of its reception, and the bit that I took the most convincing on, is the question of the semantic range of the word “evangelist,” and specifically whether or not everybody has a responsibility to speak the gospel, not just promote it. Dickson’s take is interesting. I feel like he’s onto something. Especially because I’m pretty committed to the idea that the body is made up of different people with different gifts – but I feel like in the absence of other people gifted in evangelism, or in smaller manifestations of the body – people have to be evangelists, I don’t think this is something that Dickson would deny… but I can’t put words into his mouth, here’s what he says:

“We are involved in God’s mission, and so we must allow his Word to shape our part in it. The slogan “Every Christian an evangelist” has a noble purpose, but it is not a biblical way of speaking. For Christians in general—as opposed to evangelists in particular—telling the gospel to others (evangelism) could be described as the icing on the cake of mission.”

His argument essentially seems to be some people are icing specialists (evangelists), some people are cake makers (promoters of the gospel), and that it’s fine to just make cake because that’s where the substance is, and its the harder bit. I guess I’d want to say that everybody should be able to make the icing, and evangelists have to be pretty good at making cake too. Again. I don’t think he disagrees. His tips for picking those people who are especially called, or gifted, as evangelists are valuable – but I do think that each one of the characteristics (keenness to share the gospel, relate well to non-believers, Christian maturity, and clarity on what the gospel is – including speaking intelligibly) is something that all Christians should aspire to.

One other very minor criticism is only really relevant if you’re convinced that Bruce Winter is right about what Paul is doing at the Areopagus, in Acts 17, if his exercise is an exercise in wisely assessing the situation, and meeting a social convention for his audience, which expected to be introduced to “foreign gods,” while presenting the gospel, then I’d say Paul’s speech there isn’t an anomaly, but rather, an essential demonstration of his approach to gospel preaching. I’d argue that rather than simply being an apologetic to their concerns, it is a presentation of the gospel that adheres to how they expect to hear about new gods. But that’s not a point that in any sense undermines this fantastic book.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for me – personally – coming from a guy whose excellence I admire, as someone who is too often tempted to think that my own pursuit of excellence in evangelism will be what produces fruit, came in this paragraph…

“A few years after these strange days, I asked Glenda [the lady who led him, and many of his friends from school, to Jesus] what she put her “success” down to. Without blinking she answered, “Prayer. We prayed earnestly, regularly and specifically for your school, and the Lord in his grace answered us.” As an evangelist who is sometimes tempted to think too highly of skill, style and creativity in evangelism, her words were (and are) a salient reminder that the “harvest” is the Lord’s, not mine. The most basic gospel-promoting task, therefore, is not evangelism; it is prayer to the Lord of the harvest.”

This is really powerful stuff for anybody who thinks too highly of their own God given skills, and ability to think. I thoroughly recommend this book that you’ve hopefully all read already.

John Dickson on the Bible’s place in history

Brilliant. Use this next time you’re talking to an idiot atheist about the historicity of Jesus and the New Testament.

John Dickson is a top class Bible teacher and historian – taken seriously in both spheres. In fact, the only reason I don’t take him seriously sometimes is that he still includes “musician” in his bio – even though his days in the band “In the Silence” are long gone. It’s Bonoesque. But his stuff is still worth reading.

“The so-called religious nature of Christian writings in no way diminishes their value as historical sources. Historians take the Christian agenda into account when they analyze the New Testament, just as they take the imperial bias into account when studying Tacitus or the Jewish bias when reading Josephus. But historians do not place the New Testament in a special category called “religious literature.” Indeed, in Australia’s largest public university ancient history department (Macquarie) you will find undergraduate and postgraduate courses like “The New Testament in Its Times” and “The Historical Jesus.””

Good article on the Gospel Coalition. Read it.

A more balanced take on Halloween

John Dickson offers his more measured take on Halloween over at The Punch.

So, is Halloween today ‘evil’? Sure it is, if it involves the glorification (or, worse, the trivialization) of things satanic, and playing nasty pranks on neighbours who simply forgot to pick up a bag of sweets earlier in the day. Beyond that, a community dress-up involving opening our doors to each other and giving sweets to kids in fancy dress is a lovely idea. It might even build friendships in a society hungry for community.

Just to clarify. I don’t think Halloween is evil. I just think it’s dumb. Stupid. And not becoming of Australian culture. Which I would like to think maintains a higher standard than Coles and Woolworths would lead us to believe.

Egg citing statistics

Research released by John Dickson’s Centre for Public Christianity has been given widespread media attention today.

The ABC radio’s idea of “objective” coverage was to give the Atheists a chance to use this as a platform to call for a secular society.

But it’s a pretty interesting statistic when it comes to reaching the “unwashed masses” – it seems almost half of the country’s non-Christians could be considered “low hanging fruit” – believing that Jesus rose from the dead.

This survey did not include those who define themselves as “born again” which possibly means it did include church going liberals, Catholics and others who tick the “Christian” box on the census.

Here’s the SMH story on the stats.