Why generous pluralism is a better ideal than idealistic purism and provides a better future for our broad church (or why I resigned from GIST)

This week I resigned from a committee I’d been on since 2011, I was at the time of resigning, the longest serving current member. I resigned because I did not and could not agree with the statement the committee issued on the same sex marriage postal survey, and I wanted to freely and in good faith publicly say why I think it is wrong, and to stand by my previously published stance on the plebiscite.

Our two-fold purpose is to equip believers in Presbyterian Church of Queensland congregations to:
a) live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society and
b) engage in gospel-hearted apologetics that point to the great hope we have in Jesus.

The Gospel In Society Today Committee’s statement of purpose,

In short, I did not think the committee’s paper fulfilled either aspects of its charter — it is not ‘Gospel-hearted apologetics’ in that there is nothing in it that engages particularly well with the world beyond the church in such a way that a case for marriage as Christians understand it might convince our neighbours of the goodness of marriage, or the goodness of Jesus who fulfils marriage in a particular way; nor do I believe it effectively equipped believers to live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society; instead, it equipped believers who were already going to vote a particular way to keep voting that way and to have some Gospel-centred reasoning to do so. I’m not convinced the way it encourages people to vote or speak about that vote, or understand the situation grapples well with our secular context; as someone not committed to a no vote already, I found the paper unpersuasive even after a significant review process.

But there was also a deeper reason for my resignation (resigning over just one paper would not be a sensible course of action) — this paper reflects a particular approach to political engagement in a fractured and complicated world that I do not support, and there was no evidence the committee would adopt an alternative strategy. I resigned because the committee failed to practice the generous pluralism that I believe the church should be practicing inside and outside our communities (on issues that aren’t matters of doctrine — there’s a difference between polytheism and pluralism). I had asked for our committee to put forward the views of each member of the committee rather than the majority, because the committee’s remit is to ‘equip believers in our churches to engage in Gospel-hearted apologetics’ and ‘to live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society’ — and I believe part of that is equipping believers to operate as generously as possible with people we disagree with in these complicated times.

The statement issued by the committee is no Nashville Statement; it is an attempt to be generous to those we disagree with, without offering a solution to a disagreement that accommodates all parties (or even as many parties as imaginable); it is also an idealistic document, and so as it seeks to push for an ideal outcome it represents a failure to listen and engage well with other people who hold other views — be they in our churches, or in the community at large. It is this failure to listen that led me to believe my energy would be better spent elsewhere, but also that leads me to so strongly disagree with the paper that I am publishing this piece.

This is not, I believe, the way forward for the church in a complicated and contested secular world; it will damage our witness and it represents the same spirit to push towards an ideal ‘black and white’ solution in a world that is increasingly complicated. I’m proud of this same committee’s nuanced work on sexuality and gender elsewhere, and don’t believe this paper reflects the same careful listening engagement with the world beyond the church and the desires of the people we are engaging with (and how those desires might be more fulfilled in knowing the love of Jesus). By not understanding these desires (not listening) our speech will not be heard but dismissed. This paper is meant to serve an internal purpose for members of our churches (so to persuade people to vote no), but it is also published externally on our website without any clarification that it is not to be read as an example of Gospel centered apologetics, so one must conclude if one reads it online, that this is a paper that serves both purposes of the committee.

I’m not the only voice speaking out in favour of pluralism, nor am I claiming to be its smartest or best spokesperson. John Inazu’s book Confident Pluralism and his interview in Cardus’ Comment magazine gave me a language to describe what I believe is not just the best but the only real way forward in what Charles Taylor calls our ‘secular age’ — where the public square is a contested space accommodating many religious and non religious views. If we want to resist the harder form of secularism which seeks to exclude all religious views from the public square, it seems to me that we either need a monotheistic theocracy (but whose?) or a pluralistic democracy that accommodates as many views as possible or acceptable; and this requires a certain amount of imagination and a sacrifice of idealism. The thing is, for many of us who’ve been brought up in an environment that defaults to the hard secular where the sexual revolution is assumed (ie anyone under about 38, or those who are a bit older but did degrees in the social sciences), we’ve already, generally, had to contest for our beliefs and adopt something like a pluralism. There are ways to prevent pluralism — like home schooling or insularly focused Christian education, but if people have grown up in a ‘public’ not stewarded by a particular stream of Christianity that deliberately excludes listening to the world, or if they are not particularly combative and idealistic types who have played the culture wars game from early in their childhood, then they are likely to have adopted something that looks pluralistic.

Here’s a quote from John Inazu’s interview with James K.A Smith, from Comment:

“JKAS: What have you learned since your book has come out? Would you already do something differently based on how it’s been received, whether by religious or non-religious audiences?

JI: What’s particularly true of millennial audiences, whether religious or secular, is that, as a descriptive matter, the reality of pluralism is already well-ingrained in their lives. This is their existence, so it’s not surprising to them that we have deep differences and we encounter people who are quite unlike us, because that’s how most of them have lived their lives. That’s less true with older generations.

Where I’ve seen the most resistance from the religious side of things is with a concern about getting too close to people who don’t share our values. That has always struck me as odd because the gospel example here is Jesus going into very messy spaces and being the light in those spaces.”

But it’s also not just Inazu who has spoken of pluralism; it’s also John Stackhouse in a recent piece for the ABC Religion and Ethics portal. In a piece titled Christians and Politics: Getting Beyond ‘All’ or ‘Nothing’, Stackhouse says:

“In the light of this reality, we can see now that there are three kinds of people who undertake political action.

The ideologue has it easiest. He simply asks himself, in any situation on any issue, what’s ultimately right. Then he does everything he can to realize that ideal. That’s the way many Christians today are engaging in political action, whether on the left, right, or whatever. If we believe that abortion is wrong, then we work to outlaw it. If we think that gay marriage is consonant with Christian values, then we should make it legal. Graphic movies, globalization, immigration, climate change – whatever it is that we believe is right on any issue we simply seek to universalize by whatever means are available.

The pragmatist also starts with the question of what’s ultimately right. But then she carefully appraises the situation and works for what she deems is currently possible. If abortion is wrong, but the best she can do is get a ban on partial-birth abortions, she works for that. If gay marriage is wrong, but the best she can do is see “civil unions” instituted instead, then that’s what she aims at.

The pluralist asks about what’s ultimately right and what’s currently possible. But he interposes a third, admittedly odd, question between those two: What is penultimately right? Might it be God’s will that what is ultimately right not prevail immediately? The pluralist Christian might have strong views about x. He also is pragmatic enough to know that a total ban on alternatives to his views of x is politically inconceivable in his society. But he is also willing to consider the possibility that in God’s providence, it is better for there to be more than one view of x allowed in society. He might see that, yes, ultimately God’s will is to get rid of this or that, but penultimately it serves God’s purposes for society to allow this or that to remain. He doesn’t always come to that conclusion, to be sure, and often acts just like the pragmatist. But he at least asks that question, and sometimes acts differently as a result.”

Now, it’s interesting to me, particularly in the process that led to my resignation from the committee to consider how the dynamic between these three camps plays out within Christian community (it’s also interesting to consider how these three categories mesh with three I suggested using the metaphor of hands — clean hands, dirty hands, and busy hands in a post a while back); I’ll go out on a limb here and say idealism is always partisan, and so we need to be extremely careful when speaking as an institutional church if  we choose to pursue idealism in the secular political sphere (especially on issues of conscience where there are arguably many possible faithful ways to respond to a situation with an imagination that rejects the status quo served up to us by others); while pluralism is the way to maintain clean hands as an institution in that model.

The idealistic stream of Christianity will see the pluralist as not just compromising politically but theologically, because while the pluralist will be operating with perhaps something like a retrieval ethic, the idealist will operate with something more like a creational ethic or a deontological ethic or a divine command ethic and so see their path as clearly the right way, and thus other paths as wrong. The pragmatist will have sympathies in both directions, and the pluralist will seek to accommodate all these views so long as they still recognise the truth the idealists want to uphold (if they don’t they’ve become ‘polytheists’). I predict the church, generally (and specifically in our denominational context) will face a certain amount of problems if not be damaged beyond repair if we put idealists in charge and they tolerate pragmatists but exclude pluralists — especially if those who have grown up needing to be pluralists to hold their faith. A push to idealism rather than confident, or generous, pluralism, will alienate the younger members of our church who are typically not yet in leadership (and this dynamic has played out in the Nashville Statement), and it will ultimately lead to something like the Benedict Option, a withdrawal from the pluralistic public square into our own parallel institutions and private ‘public’.

It’s interesting to me that GIST fought so hard against withdrawing from the Marriage Act, because, in part, the government recognises marriage contracts entered into by the parties getting married and conducted by a recognised celebrant according to our marriage rites — so there is already a difference between how we view marriage and how the state does — pluralism — but has now reverted to arguing that the government doesn’t just recognise marriage according to a broader definition than we hold but promotes and affirms particular types according to a particular definition. I know that was our argument because it was the one I spoke to in the discussion at our General Assembly.

Here’s my last smarter person that me making the case for pluralism in these times, New York Times columnist David Brooks in his review of the Benedict Option. He opens by describing two types of Christians not three — and Stackhouse’s pragmatist and pluralist categories fall into the ‘ironist’ category.

“Faith seems to come in two personalities, the purist and the ironist. Purists believe that everything in the world is part of a harmonious whole. All questions point ultimately to a single answer. If we orient our lives toward this pure ideal, and get everybody else to, we will move gradually toward perfection.

The ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one. In this world, the pieces don’t quite fit together and virtues often conflict: liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, tolerance versus order. For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs. There is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living. For the ironists, like Reinhold Niebuhr or Isaiah Berlin, those purists who aim to be higher than the angels often end up lower than the beasts.”

If the purists run the show we’re going to end up with a very pure church that ultimately excludes most impure people ever feeling loved enough, or understood enough, to bother listening to what we have to say. Purists are necessary though to keep us from polytheism or losing the ideals. Here’s more from Brooks:

“My big problem with Rod [Dreher] is that he answers secular purism with religious purism. By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures, most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They will close off the dynamic creativity of a living faith. 

There is a beautiful cohesion to the monastic vocation. But most people are dragged willy-nilly into life — with all its contradictions and complexities. Many who experience faith experience it most vividly within the web of their rival loves — different communities, jobs, dilemmas. They have faith in their faith. It gives them a way of being within the realities of a messy and impure world.

The right response to the moment is not the Benedict Option, it is Orthodox Pluralism. It is to surrender to some orthodoxy that will overthrow the superficial obsessions of the self and put one’s life in contact with a transcendent ideal. But it is also to reject the notion that that ideal can be easily translated into a pure, homogenized path. It is, on the contrary, to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.”

Brooks uses ‘Orthodox’ to qualify pluralism, Inazu ‘Confident’; I’ve settled on ‘generous’ (see my review of the Benedict Option for why).

If our denomination puts the idealists/purists in power without an ethos of including the pluralists (a functional pluralism) they will always by definition exclude the pluralists; whereas if we adopt a pluralistic approach to the public square (and to how we give voice to those who disagree with us within the camp of orthodoxy) then we will necessarily also give space to the pluralists. The choice we are faced with is a choice between a broad church and a narrow one. What’s interesting is that pluralism actually becomes an ideal in itself; one of the reasons I resigned is that I am fundamentally an idealist about pluralism, once it became clear this would not be our posture or strategy, I could no longer participate (because I was excluded, but also because I am an idealist and saw the purist-idealism as an uncompromising error).

So this is a relatively long preamble to establish why I think the position adopted by GIST (idealism/purism) and how it was resolved within the committee (idealism/purism/no pluralism) is deeply problematic and a strategic misfire in our bid to engage the world with ‘gospel hearted apologetics’.

Generous pluralism and ‘living faithfully for Jesus in a secular society’ and ‘engaging in gospel-hearted apologetics’ in a polytheistic world

GIST’s philosophy of ministry acknowledges that we live in a ‘secular society’ but maintain some sort of difference from that society by ‘living faithfully for Jesus’. The idealism that Stackhouse speaks of, or purism that Brooks speaks of, will fail if society is truly secular.

Idealism will fail us because at the heart of idealism is not simply a commitment to monotheism as the option we faithfully choose amongst many contested options in the broader public, but as the option the broader public should also choose as the temporal best (following Stackhouse’s definitions). So we get, in the GIST statement, sentences like, which holds out a sort of ideal around marriage (rather than a ‘faithful life’ within a secular society):

“Ultimately if we want to see our society return wholeheartedly to God’s design for marriage, we need people to embrace God’s solution to the sin which has led society away from it.” — GIST Statement on Same Sex Marriage Plebiscite

It seems unlikely to me that this ideal of society returning wholeheartedly to God’s design for marriage (essentially a Christian society) is possible this side of the return of Jesus (which is why I’m a pluralist), and I am confused about this being an ideal that we are to pursue as Christians.

Here’s why. I think this sort of wholehearted pursuit of God’s design for marriage was an ideal in Israel (but the sense that the ideal is not actually possible is found in God’s accommodation of divorce in the law of Moses, though he hates it and it falls short of the lifelong one flesh union). I think this ultimately is a form of the pursuit of monotheism for all in society; a noble ideal formed by an eschatology where every knee will one day bow to Jesus (Philippians 2). Israel was to pursue a sort of societal monotheism — this is why they were commanded to destroy all idols and idolatrous alters — utterly — when coming into the land (Deuteronomy 4-7) and to keep themselves from idols. There is no place for polytheism — or idolatry — within the people of God (and yet the divorce laws recognise there is a place for ‘non-ideal’ broken relationships and dealing with sin to retrieve certain good outcomes). Israel was to be monotheistic and to guard the boundaries of monotheism within its civic laws. We aren’t in Israel any more — but the church is the kingdom of God, and we as worshippers of Jesus are called to monotheism in how we approach life, this is why I believe it’s important that the church upholds God’s good design for marriage in a contested public square as part of our faithful witness to God’s goodness.

Now, while an Israelite was to destroy idols when coming into the land, and Christians are to ‘keep ourselves from idols’, outside of Israel our monotheism as Christians manifests itself in the Great Commission — the pursuit of worshippers of God — disciples — through worshipping God. When Paul hits the polytheistic city of Athens as a monotheist he adopts a pluralist strategy; one based on listening to the views of the people in Athens, on understanding their idolatrous impulses, and of confidently redirecting those impulses to the true and living God. His confidence is that when the Gospel is presented as a monotheistic truth in a pluralistic culture God will work to draw people back to his design for life.

Societal shifts towards God’s design have happened historically (think Constantine and Rome), and they do happen through Christians living and proclaiming the Gospel, but I’m not entirely sure that a Christian society should be our aim rather than a society of Christians (and the difference is how people who aren’t Christians are accommodated in the laws and institutions of each — ie whether the culture is pluralistic or monotheistic). Ancient cultures were also profoundly different to our individualistic, ‘democratised’ age in that the way to convert a culture was either to conquer it (think Babylon and Israel — or the spread of Babylonian religion to the hearts of most of those they captured (but not all Israel), or Rome and the imperial cult), or to convert the king. Kings functioned as high priests of the civic religion and the very image of God, and so to convert a king was to turn the hearts of the people to a different God (think Jonah in Nineveh, or Nebuchadnezzar’s response and edicts after witnessing God’s work in Daniel, and to some extent, Constantine in Rome). It is pretty unlikely that a society wide shift like this will happen when there isn’t a close connection to the ‘civil law’ and the religion of a nation.

“How then should Christians seek to influence the laws of the state in this area? In terms of voting the answer to this seems relatively straightforward. Since we’re being asked by the state what in our view would be best for our society, and seeing as God’s good design for marriage is best not just for Christians but for all people and for our society generally; we are encouraging Christians to vote ‘no’ in this plebiscite.” — The GIST Paper

I would argue this approach to voting is only straightforward if you adopt a purist-idealist position and reject pluralism as a valid good. That it isn’t actually straightforward that the best thing for our society is that non-Christians be conformed to our vision of human flourishing, and so our definition of marriage, without the telos — or purpose — of human flourishing and marriage as part of that being established first.

I’d also say this is an odd interpretation of what we are being asked. The question is not ‘what would be best for society’ — to approach it that way automatically leads to adopting an ‘idealist’ position; it begs the question. What we are being asked, literally, is “should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” In a secular society that’s an entirely more complicated question about what communities and views a secular government should recognise in its framework. The government’s responsibility is to provide the maximum amount of compromise or breadth for its citizens that can be held by consensus. It’s a tough gig. The government’s definition of marriage, including no-fault divorce, is already different from the Christian view. I marry people according to the rites of the Presbyterian Church which includes and articulates a vision of marriage connected to the telos of marriage — the relationship between Jesus and the church; the government’s definition of marriage is broader than mine, but includes mine.

This is the point at which I disagree significantly with the paper (I also disagree with the way it treats recognition as affirmation, fails to listen to, understand, and respond to the ‘human rights’ argument for same sex marriage by simply blithely dismissing it, and how it sees secular laws as establishing ideals rather than minimums (the state can and does pursue ideals through incentives and campaigns, but there are no incentives being offered to gay couples to marry that they do not already receive). The law is a blunt instrument that recognises things held as common assumptions of the minimum standards of life together, like ‘robbery is wrong’ and governments can incentivise not-robbing with welfare payments, and prevent the evil of robbery by incentivising or subsidising local governments or businesses introducing better lighting and security. Ethics aren’t formed so much by law but by the development of ideals and virtues (and arguably this happens through narratives not law, which is why so much of the Old Testament law is actually narrative even in the little explanations of different rules).

Generous Pluralism, the GIST Paper, and the Priesthood of all believers

This GIST paper was adopted after a lengthy review process, and through much discussion including three face to face meetings and deliberation by flying minute. Throughout the course of the discussion (and before it) it became clear that there were different views about what ‘faithfully living for Jesus in a secular society’ looks like; and so what equipping believers to do that looks like. I suggested we put forward the best case for different responses (an alternative to the majority view, and for it to be clear who held it and who did not, on the committee. In the discussions around the paper the majority of the committee held that we did not want to “give credence” to views other than the no vote being what equips believers to live faithfully for Jesus; even while acknowledging that my position was legitimately within our doctrinal and polity frameworks. This was ultimately why I resigned.

I don’t believe this decision to exclude a possible way to live faithfully for Jesus (and what I think is the best way) fulfils the committee’s charter if there are actually legitimate faithful ways to abstain or vote yes.

I also this fails a fundamentally Reformed principle in how we think of believers, and this principle is part of why I think a confident or generous pluralism within the church, and within the boundaries of orthodoxy, is the best way to equip believers. A confident pluralism isn’t built on the idea that all ideas are equally valid, but rather that we can be confident that the truth will persuade those who are persuaded by truth. That we can be confident, in disagreement, that a priesthood of all believers do not need a priestly or papal authority to interpret Scripture and the times for them. Believing that such a committee writes to equip such a priesthood of all believers (those our charter claims we serve), and that they should apply their wisdom, submit to scripture, and participate in the world according to conscience is the best way to equip believers to live faithfully.

A position of generous pluralism applied to a secular society outside the church probably leads to abstaining, and possibly to voting yes, depending on your ethic (how much a retrieval ethic plays into your thinking and how much you think the law affirms or normalises rather than recognising and retrieving good things from relationships that already exist (where children already exist).

Because a confident, or generous, pluralism relies on the priesthood of all believers and trusts that Christians should come to their own position assessing truth claims in response to Scripture I’m relatively comfortable with space being made for people to hear views other than mine. An example of this is that I host the GIST website, free of charge, on my private server at my cost. People are reading their views at my expense, and I will keep doing this as an act of hospitality though I believe their views are wrong. I also host and only lightly moderate comments and critical responses to things I write. This is a commitment I have to listening, to dialogue, to hospitality, to accommodation of others, to the priesthood of all believers (and a confidence that the truth will persuade those who it persuades), and to pluralism — and the lack of this commitment from others on the committee is in favour of purism-idealism, is fundamentally, why I resigned from the committee.

While the GIST paper tries to hold the created order (or ‘marriage as a creation ordinance)’ in tension with the resurrection; following the Oliver O’Donovan ‘resurrection and moral order’ model (and this was part of our discussions as a committee); the problem with creational ethics (or arguments from God’s design/natural order) that establish a universal good for all people, even non-Christians, is that they do not, in my opinion, sufficiently recognise the supremacy of Jesus or how Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets (because ‘moral law’ is still law we find in the written law of Moses that Jesus claims is written about him). This is a point at which I diverge slightly from the capital R reformed tradition, but where I think I am probably prepared to argue I’m standing in the traditions of the Reformers (sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers).

Turning to the Reformers for a model of a political theology from our secular context is interesting; the governments operating around the Reformation (for example the German nobility, or Calvin’s Geneva) were not secular but sectarian; and, for example, Luther wrote to the German nobility to call them to act as priests as part of the priesthood of all believers, rather than be led by the pope (a vital thing to convince them of if he was going to make space for the reformation). It’s fair to say that Calvin and Luther weren’t pluralists, they played the sectarian game at the expense of Catholicism or other forms of later Protestantism (see Luther’s Against The Peasants, and of course, his awful treatise on the Jews). When someone claims their political theology is consistent with the Reformed tradition and seeks to apply it to a secular democracy, I get a little concerned.

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people…

Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood, as St. Peter says in I Peter 2:9, “Ye are a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom,” and the book of Revelation says, Rev. 5:10 “Thou hast made us by Thy blood to be priests and kings.”

This is an interesting paper from Luther in that it doesn’t provide any sort of model for interacting with a government that is secular or not as faithful as any other members of the priesthood of all believers — instead what his political theology in his context is about is a government he treats as Christian being coerced by a church he holds to be the anti-Christ.

The Reformation was built on an epistemic humility that comes from the challenging of human authority and tradition. Where the GIST committee, in its deliberation, appealed to the Reformed category of a ‘Creation Ordinance’, I’d want to appeal to the Reformed approach to scriptures that sees everything fulfilled in Jesus — even the creation ordinances like work, Sabbath, and marriage. It’s reasonably easy to establish that Jesus is our rest and Lord of the Sabbath, that his resurrection restores our ability to work in a way that is no longer frustrated (1 Cor 15:58, Ephesians 2) — that there’s a telos or purpose to these creation ordinances that is best fulfilled in Christ, so that they can’t universally be understood by idolatrous humans without Jesus, and yet our arguments about protecting marriage or upholding marriage is that we are upholding God’s good design for all people. GIST’s paper is infinitely better than anything the ACL or the Coalition for Marriage is putting out that only argues from creation, in that it includes the infinite — by incorporating the resurrection; but the idea of a creation ordinance that should push us away from accommodating others via a public, generous, pluralism is an idealism that I would argue fails to accommodate the relationship between creation and its redeemer, and the telos of marriage (which doesn’t exist in the new creation except as the relationship between us and Jesus) (Matt 22, Rev 21).

A Confession

I’d served this committee for seven years. In the first two years I was in a minority (with another member) with a majority holding to a different sort of idealism; an idealism not built on the Gospel, but on God’s law or the ‘whole counsel of God’ (with no sense of how God’s whole counsel is fulfilled in Jesus). We orchestrated a changing of the guard on this committee that was not generous or pluralistic; we excluded a voice from the committee that was a legitimate representation of members of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

We pursued a platform narrower than the breadth of the church and so alienated a percentage of our members; I’ve come to regret this, while being proud of our record (and despite the committee being returned unopposed year on year since). I don’t think excluding voices is the best way to fulfil our charter, but rather a poly-phonic approach where a range of faithful options are given to the faithful — our priesthood — in order to be weighed up. This will be a challenge within the assembly of Queensland where there is a large amount of accord, but a much larger challenge within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, which is broader (and more fractured).

Conclusion

At present in the Presbyterian denomination our committees are operating like priests or bishops; sending missives to our churches that carry a sort of authority they should not be granted in our polity; I understand the efficiencies created by governance and operations via committee, but if Luther’s priesthood of all believers is truly a fundamental principle of Reformed operation in the world we should be more comfortable and confident that people being transformed by the Spirit and facing the complexity of life in our secular world will act according to conscience and in submission to God’s word, but might operate faithfully as Christians anywhere between idealism, pragmatism and pluralism, as purists or ironists; and if we put the purist-idealists in charge (or our committees function from that framework) we might significantly narrow the church and limit our voice and imagination; cutting off opportunities for Gospel-hearted apologetics from those who might walk through our idol-saturated streets and engage differently with our idol worshipping neighbours.

Successful revolutionaries become the establishment; and that’s why questions of ‘authority’ matter in the ‘Christian blogosphere’

“Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.” — Martin Luther, Against the Murderous, Thieving, Hordes of Peasants

 

When Luther, the Reformer, went head to head with the church establishment and won (at least in Germany); he accidentally-on-purpose became the establishment. I’m not totally sure he was ready for the power or responsibility; most of the stuff he’s infamous for, rather than famous for, came after he’d replaced the Catholic Church as the authority.

Luther’s ideas, particularly the ‘priesthood of all believers’ challenged the establishment beyond simply the power of the church; his use of the printing press as a ‘democratising’ platform that gave a ‘priestly’ voice to anybody with an idea, which undermined the power structures within the church filtered out beyond these structures and into the political realm; where power was certainly not democratic. The political power Luther was relying on for the protection of his reforms was not democratic… and the Reformation correlated with (it’s hard to say it directly caused) a peasant revolt in Germany. Luther didn’t want to lose what he had worked to establish, so he wrote pretty vehemently Against the Murderous, Thieving, Hordes of Peasants. The irony here is that the same reforming impulse that saw him challenge the established church, was driving these peasants, and in a later justification of the harshness of this first missive, he doubled down, saying “a rebel is not worth rational arguments, for he does not accept them. You have to answer people like that with a fist, until the sweat drips off their noses…

Which is almost precisely what the church wanted to do to him… and here he is backing those who use power, possibly those who abuse power, with a theological justification, saying Christians should “suffer injustice, not to seize the sword and take to violence”… Luther added the authority of his voice against the cause of reform elsewhere… political reform. He was a certain sort of establishment… Then people within the Reformation movement started to disagree with each other and using the mechanisms of the new media technology at their disposal (the printing press) to publish against one another, and things got a bit worse (so Luther called Zwingli his ‘Judas’ after he and a bloke named Carlstadt started publishing pamphlets against him and then things got really ugly) and it was clear that in some ways Luther viewed himself as the new church establishment in Germany. He’d reformed and ‘democratised’ the church; but had maintained some of the institutions and power dynamics of the church establishment he replaced.

Questions of authority are vexing amidst questions of reform; especially when new media technologies give new power to voices that don’t want to conserve the status quo, or establishment, but challenge it. So in all the conversation around questions of authority and the blogosphere; conversations about something like a new technology driven reformation, in conversations about how we, the church, approach publishing/teaching on the web, we need to ask: what are we going to replace the establishment with? What will the new establishment be? How will it be different? Who will it marginalise even as it empowers others who have been marginalised?

Social media is a ‘new media technology’ — and it’s really where the democratising power of the Internet is finally starting to bite into establishments that are less democratic. In the analogy with the peasant’s revolt (or any revolution aimed at democracy) the traditional establishment media represents a concentration of power and influence in the hands of the few; the aristocracy (the company owners) and their nobles (the journalists). While this is a follow up to my last post which is about the state of the Christian blogosphere and the question of ‘authority’ in this new media landscape and the social media lead reformation, there’s an analogy to consider between how social media is changing church power structures, and how it is changing establishments outside the church, particularly in the media. Traditional media empires are falling to pieces (eg Fairfax) because they can no longer profit in this new landscape; they have been disrupted. The establishment is dying. The problem is they haven’t yet been replaced with anything better.

Citizen journalism and social media (a democratised platform) can produce a political movement like the Arab Spring (and that’s being damned with faint praise), and can produce an Obama presidency and then a Trump presidency. Citizen journalism, or the loss of power of ‘establishment authorities’ like the traditional mainstream media (the ‘institution’ or the press as ‘an estate of the realm’), also gives rise to ‘fake news’… because the fragmenting of media companies means that professional standards, regulations, and codes of ethics are out the door, and even the legal protections like defamation laws are less effective because the cost of going after a blogging operation running from a bedroom isn’t really worth it (like it might have been against a media outlet operated by News Ltd). It opens up the ‘publish first seek forgiveness later’ mentality, and removes the burdens of fact checking and source confirmation and all sorts of things that have protected us as an audience, but also given authority to particular established outlets.

Season three of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom grappled with this tension beautifully. Here’s a great clip.

“People don’t read this with the expectation of it being true…”

It’s actually based on a real world example. That’s the line offered by the voice from the margins — the voice seeking to challenge the establishment and the role of authority, the creator of ACNgage. And it’s almost the voice that says ‘the market will decide who is worthy of having authority’ coming from the new reformers.

Here’s the quote that Newsroom quote is built from…

“What the stalker map is is citizen journalism, people don’t read it with the expectation that every word of it will be Gospel, everyone who reads it knows that it isn’t checked at all. What they read it for is the immediacy… you get an unfiltered… the way that people perceive celebrities in real time…”

For those of us who are idealists about what role the media might play in transparent and accountable politics, this is diabolical in the sphere of the press; but for those of us wondering about Christian voices and authority in the social media world there’s a word of warning here; can we afford to be so blasé about truth and the idea that it’s ‘people’ as readers who have to do the work of discernment?

Do we really want to, in a rush to democratising the web using egalitarian (in the broadest sense, not the ‘technical’ term within Christian debates about gender) technologies really want to do away with all institutions (and credibility and expertise and accountability and ethics) to let populism rule?

In my idealistic wannabe journalist phase I was schooled to believe that what the public is interested in is not the same as what is in the public interest; the idea that journalists have a gatekeeping role to play when it comes to deciding what qualifies as news. The problem with our modern news institutions is that they’ve become more interested in serving up what we think we’re interested in at the expense of what we should be interested in in order to live in a flourishing society. Here, for example, are some of the stories from the news.com.au homepage last week.

 

 

 

How ‘Police Officer turns to career in stripping’ is a finance story escapes me; but these are stories that are designed primarily to entertain and titillate; not to inform the public about things that are important for the common good. This little picture of a ‘media institution’ in the new media landscape makes a very good case for democratisation and reform; so long as we replace it with something better — not just a thing that gives our itching ears a good scratch.

Reform could be a really good thing for the media; but I’m not so sure the ‘blogosphere’ or ‘citizen journalism’ is the answer to this problem. I’m not sure that bad institutions are a reason to do away with institutions altogether. If the media we consume shapes our common life, and is part of what helps us flourish as societies, then I’m not sure we’ll be richer without institutions. We just need different institutions that are able to harness the good parts of new technology without an overcorrection. Which is harder than it stands; because most revolutionaries are functionally aggressive monotheists (our way is the way), not pluralists (we want to make space for multiple ways held in tension); we want total victory over the other, especially when the other has been oppressive and there’s a sense of justice. The natural tendency of reformers is to replace; to fill the power vacuum you create by overthrowing the old system. That’s why in some revolutions the establishment get beheaded.

A power shift from the few to the many, without considering some of the limits of power that the ‘few’ faced (or ideally faced) that the many won’t, will be dangerous. While institutions can be terrible and corrupt and serve fairly narrow agendas, this does not mean that all authority structures are equally terrible. It’d also be naive to think that no structure but the totally ‘democratised’ audience is the best option; this is already happening in the traditional media; the media that is market driven gives the market what it wants rather than what it needs; it aims for excitement, entertainment and titillation rather than information for formation. The same sort of naivety that leads to the death of expertise in stuff like direct democracy political parties; populism is a terrible master. It’s funny that populism and the rise of fake news gave the US a Trump presidency, but Trump is so keen to be ‘anti-establishment’ that he’s calling the establishment media fake news… In a democratised platform we, the people, are responsible for deciding what behaviour is ethical, acceptable, and in our interest, we, the people, are responsible for deciding what content deserves a wider audience. The power is in our hands; and so questions of how to place limits on the power of the mob are worth staring down. It’s possible Luther was a bit right about the revolting peasants, even if democracy is actually a really great thing, and even if his motives were a bit questionable.

We don’t want the reformers to become the new establishment to wield exactly the same sort of power against their opponents as the previous establishment. We want to, I think, figure out how to create democratic institutions that have a clearly articulated platform, a clear code of ethics, and external (perhaps legal) accountability; but also an understanding of what these democratic platforms must do for the voiceless (they should give them a voice). New mediums lose lots of this stuff by their democratised nature; but they gain the ability to give a voice to those who have otherwise been voiceless (which is why they’re usually quickly adopted, or even developed, by the marginalised who are pushing for systemic reform). New mediums put more control in the hands of the audience/market than ever before; a platform itself isn’t enough; you choose what you read; but then you have the opportunity to become a contributor (by commenting), or a publisher (by sharing to other social media channels, or by publishing your own response elsewhere). The new establishment is fragmented; and authority now comes more from the audience than the platform. Some people are responding to this by producing new media platforms (Gawker, Buzzfeed, etc and Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti’s stuff on new media (linked to in this old post) is worth reading if that stuff interests you).

So here’s my theory; true reform doesn’t change who’s in the establishment but the nature of ‘establishment’ or the system itself (and technology can be part of that). What we’ve got to do here is navigate between media being in the hands of a powerful elite who exclude perspectives outside their own but have some in built accountability, and the media being in the hands of everybody with accountability being totally external (in the hands of the audience). This is true in the secular ‘new media’ landscape when it comes to how institutions function or what the establishment looks like…  but it’s also a thing for us to figure out as Christians. We, in the Christian ‘blogosphere’; have our little parallel institutions, aren’t immune from this stuff either; there’s an establishment (often in the form of the institutional church and its proxies, but also in the form of voices that have a certain amount of authority because of how they’ve been supported by traditional Christian media outlets). And these videos above are a beautiful picture of the current debate online and what’s at stake outside the church and inside it…

This new media is inevitably and inherently democratic, it will, as I suggested in my last post, favour the anti-establishment side where that side has not been perceptively inclusive or democratic; and the side arguing for the equality of all voices (a true ‘priesthood of all believers’) against a narrow priesthood… much as the printing press favoured the reformers and aligned with their framework. If you give everyone a voice with a new technology, it’s those who’ve been marginalised who (historically) who’ll be the quickest to pick up the new technology (if not to develop it in order to serve their agenda).

What would be a terrible idea in the face of this technological upheaval, or disruption, would be to attempt to play the game the way we always have; to be like the Catholic Church in the face of the Reformation, or the traditional print media in the face of the Internet… Those of us who believe there are some good things to conserve in our institutions, in the face of progress, need to grapple with how to make our institutions nimble and rightly progressive; to be better and more compelling than the alternatives. If a democratised, or egalitarian, technology favours those with totally egalitarian theology (be it on gender or just on questions of institutional authority or tradition) then we need to think pretty hard about how to offer a better alternative (possibly a generously ‘pluralistic’ one). The thing that worries me most about the egalitarian stuff isn’t so much the theology (there are many things I agree with as someone who, with Luther, is big on the priesthood of all believers and the equality of all people under God), but the potential that an egalitarian approach to life actually creates a meritocracy; that once there’s no sort of structural control or accountability, it’s the powerfully persuasive voices that actually get favoured and build the biggest platforms; and the message of the cross, I think, should totally undermine anything that looks like a meritocracy or powerfully persuasive human arguments. What an interesting alternative might look like is the sort of vision of a media that the ABC’s Scott Stephens put forward, that I’ve now quoted a couple of times:

“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference

Maybe rather than being egalitarian we should be those who act to amplify the voices of those the world seeks to silence; even if those voices say things we disagree with, because we recognise the dignity and equality of those people too; this is what real democracy looks like anyway; not populism or a level playing field so that the meritorious can rise via the mechanism of the audience-as-market.

Part of the solution for surviving and thriving in the digital world is good content. Content that is virtuously good in the public interest/geared towards human flourishing sense, but also content that is good because it has credibility, and integrity, and a demonstrable commitment to an ongoing reputation. There’s a degree to which this means good content probably comes with some sort of connection to real world accountability structures rather than with no regard to things like the law and ethics (see the videos above), as Christians it probably means we ought to have some declared connection to a doctrinal framework or church community so that people know where we are coming from as they assess the content. But it’s not enough that the content simply be good; newspapers (apart from News Ltd papers) still produce good content, but they’re dying (so too, the content produced in the newsroom in The Newsroom). This content also needs to be truly social or liquid; part of the new media landscape is the idea that people are publishers not just readers, and publication (be it comments, responses, etc should be as frictionless as possible), and part of being democratised might actually be opening up our platforms to voices we might otherwise naturally exclude (in this case the call is coming from women, who are quite capable of producing their own compelling platforms and gaining a hearing, but perhaps it’s also non-tertiary educated Christians, youth, people from non-english speaking backgrounds etc).

We Christians are pretty good at setting up our own parallel (but lamer) institutions; so where in the past Christian publishing (particularly in Australia) was often closely tied to book publishing arms of denominations, we’ve now embraced the frictionless environment of the web. Where once we had our own newspapers and printed journals now we have websites as well; content portals or platforms that operate as ‘establishments’ that provide a sort of accountability, ethic, and authority to the content they produce. So we have newer properties like The Gospel Coalition, and Thinking Of God, and evolving properties like Eternity and Gotherefor; of these four I think Eternity is the closest to operating with the ‘social’/democratic nature of the web in mind (even as they employ an editor and journalists and maintain a reasonably high standard for their in house production). The Centre for Public Christianity is another interesting beast that seems to aim to contribute to the secular media rather than operate as a parallel institution (which I think is actually a much better model). But none of the other platforms in the Australian Christian blogosphere (coming out of, or seeking to play as, the establishment) are nailing this (in my humble opinion as a reader/writer/social media user with some professional expertise with the media). We’re far too wedded to the little priesthoods we’ve created — the priesthood of the educated; the priesthood of the male preacher; the priesthood of the large platform/personal brand; the priesthood of the polymath-styled genius/public intellectual who we’ll put up to talk about anything and everything because of who they are (and who they know). In my final post in this little mini-series I’ll consider the Gospel Coalition, Thinking of God, and Eternity as little case studies of this theory and show how only one of them seems geared for survival if the reformation the online conversation about women, ‘teaching’ and the Christian blogosphere is as important as it seems to be to me (as a reader of it, but also as a pastor of a church with plenty of women who say things worth hearing). If the revolution is coming, we do actually need to figure out what authority and accountability look like; these aren’t illegitimate questions to ponder.  We need to figure out what the establishment is going to be replaced with.

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