November 25, 2015

Clergy burnout: theological anemia

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click a number: 123456789101112, 13.

Anderson's review of pastoral ministry now focuses on the very real danger of clergy burnout, which he identifies as "a symptom of theological anemia" (p284). By that he means that when pastors burn out it's often because their approach to ministry lacks grounding in a robust incarnational and Trinitarian theology. In short, they see themselves working "for" God, rather than "with" the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. Because of this, they tend to take too much upon themselves and that places them at risk of burnout. It's ironic that the very people who have devoted their lives to sharing the message, My Redeemer Lives, operate as though Jesus is not truly alive and not active in accomplishing, through the Spirit, his ministry on earth in fulfillment of the Father's mission to the world.

My Redeemer Lives, by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)
Sadly, some (many?) pastors find themselves weighed down by a sense of inadequacy that, if unchecked, can lead to a sense of despair over never being able to satisfy the demands placed upon them. This becomes a vicious circle where, as Anderson notes, "the minister can only seek to atone for spiritual failure by throwing herself even more into the work of ministry." Anderson comments further on the steps in this debilitating circle:
The demands of ministry produce a sense of inadequacy. Inadequacy carries the overtone of spiritual weakness. You turn to God in desperation, seeking some relief, escape, if not renewal. Failing here too, you find nothing to do but throw yourself more deeply into the work of the ministry. And the cycle repeats itself (p285).
Faced with this burden, some pastors "grin and bear it," feeling, in their drivenness, that this burden is a necessary (even admirable) aspect of pastoral ministry. Anderson comments:.
"We are driven" is not only an effective advertising slogan for automobiles but a shrill echo of the divine call sunk deep into the psyche of a minister who seeks salvation through ministry (p286).
"Salvation through ministry"---an absurd concept to all pastors (at least in theological theory), but an operating principle for some in how they view their calling to pastoral ministry in practice. As Anderson notes, those entering pastoral ministry are encouraged to do so as a "divine calling" with the implied understanding that this call, being unavoidable and thus inevitable, is one's fate. "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel," they proclaim to themselves and to others, quoting Paul in 1Cor. 9:16 (ESV). Unfortunately, rather than understanding their calling as a call "to ministry" it becomes a call "to the ministry." Though this shift may seem innocuous, it can be devastating as the person hears a call "to do things for God" rather than their actual call, which is "to God" himself. Anderson comments:
Here, I believe, is the source of the "quiet despair" that can seep into our celebration of the sacred task and turn it into a joyless marathon of sheer endurance" (p286).
With this misguided approach, ministry becomes "an insatiable and unrelenting master we serve in the name of Christ" (p287). In Anderson's view, what is needed to break the vicious circle that leads to clergy burnout is the theology of ministry modeled by Jesus himself:
When [Jesus] reached the point of exhaustion from teaching and healing, he had the freedom to stop and to spend time alone or with his disciples. His instincts told him that his freedom from the [ministry] claims on him was upheld by the same gracious Father who have him the freedom and power to teach and heal.... (p287).
In contrast to Jesus' theology of ministry, many pastors, quite unfortunately, ground their ministry in a different, quite unhealthy, theology. Anderson comments:
It is bad theology to have to love the world more than God, and to confuse our service to God with our being sent into the world. It is bad theology to interpret the calling of God in terms of the needs of the world, rather than in our being sent to the world to do God's work and reveal his glory....
A theology that cripples and destroys the self-esteem and sense of worth of a minister is not made better by "success" in ministry. A theology allowing no "sabbath rest" for the one who does the work of ministry is a theology of the curse, not a theology of the cross. A healthy theology contains healing for the healer and freedom for the fighter of God's battles. A healthy theology, of course, is a theology of a loving God who knows that to be God is to be responsible, even for our faltering and fallible efforts (pp287-288).
Anderson faced a time in his own ministry when he was on the precipice of the abyss of burnout. Thankfully, he came to understand Jesus' theology of ministry and was delivered. Note some of his comments:
Through the realization of my inadequacy when only the grace of God could suffice, I experienced in a new way the reality of God as the source and sustaining power of my "call" to be a minister. My ministry no longer could be equivalent to my salvation or destruction.... 
No longer was I living on the edge of that terrible marginality in ministry, where the abyss always looms threateningly over and against every action. Driven back by obstacles, confronted with failure and frustration, attacked by symptoms of overstress, I experienced the healing of God's goodness from within....
We who are called of God for Christian ministry are called first of all into the sabbath rest that Christ himself completed through the offering up of his own humanity in obedient, faithful service to God. With our backs straight up against the rock of his healed humanity, we reach out to meet human needs, do battle with evil and take the Word of God on our lips to proclaim his salvation. No temptation has ever overtaken us, says the Scripture, that has not already been experienced and healed in Jesus (Hebrews 4:15). I venture to say that no injury can ever be sustained in the work of God's ministry for which there is not already healing waiting at home (pp288-289).
Pastor, are you now experiencing or headed toward clergy burnout? If so, Anderson offers some advice from his own experience:
  • Turn to Jesus. He is the source of all good theology. He is the paradigm for pastoral ministry.
  • Explore the inner correlation between ministry and theology: "A ministry that produces dissonance and distress in the minister is theologically impoverished" (p289).
  • Consent to be one of the sheep as well as being the shepherd, thus "experiencing absolution for our sins of being a minister and the affirmation we need to continue to minister" (p290).
I'll close this post with a prayer adapted from Anderson's comment on p290:
Father, we pray that you grant us all a healthy practical theology of pastoral ministry that rests on the truth that all ministry is your ministry, through Christ, by the Spirit. May this knowledge console, empower and equip us to live out the calling you have given us by your grace. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.

November 16, 2015

Pastoral care as moral advocacy

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1234567891011, 12, 14.

Be Not Afraid by Greg Olsen
(used with permission)
As noted last time, Anderson calls upon pastors to serve as moral advocates rather than moral police. He defines moral advocacy this way:
The extension of divine grace to persons who are guilty of breaking the moral law or who are suffering a loss of personhood through the existence of a structure mandated by moral law. The practice of moral advocacy places on the side of the marginal person the moral right for personal dignity, freedom from abusive relationships, and full parity in social and communal life.... 
[This advocacy in the form of pastoral care is] provided at times of crisis, when life has become difficult, if not impossible, when relationships have been distorted, if not destructive, and when the tragic contravenes common sense, and even faith fails (p218). 
Crises come in many forms, of course, including spousal and child abuve (both physical and emotional), the breakdown of a marriage, the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of personal freedom due to addiction, the loss of meaning and purpose experienced by people moving into old age, etc. Because such crises touch at the very heart of what it means to be human, they present moral dilemmas that require moral advocacy from a pastoral caregiver who understands that God's moral will is always directed toward the goal of human life, not an abstract principle of law. The role of the pastoral caregiver is thus to be an advocate of God's moral will for the particular person. That advocacy comes in two ways:
  1. Being an advocate of God's own presence through the indwelling Holy Spirit. The pastoral caregiver is one in whom the "real presence" of Christ is made manifest as a form of advocacy to and on behalf of the one in crisis.  
  2. Being an advocate for the person's moral freedom to be a whole and functioning human being. The caregiver does not merely come as a moral authority, dispensing the law on behalf of the one caught in the dilemma. Rather, the caregiver comes as an advocate of the moral authority that belongs to the other by virtue of that person's status before God as one who bears the divine image and likeness in fellowship with other humans (see p219-220).
Being an advocate in these ways typically will "complicate" matters, in that the advocacy will involve laying wide open a variety of underlying issues, rather than merely looking for a quick (less complicated) legal "fix" (e.g. "Enforce the law and be done with it!"). A true moral moral advocate will decide the issue on the basis of what one reckons God declares to be good, not merely legal. As Anderson notes, "There is no shortcut to this decision as the good lies on the other side of moral complexity, not on this side of it" (p222). Want your ministry to be "neat and tidy"?--be a moral policeman. Want to help people find healing in Christ?--be a moral advocate. We serve as moral advocates by participating with the Holy Spirit who in the New Testament is often called the paraclete (which may be translated advocate). The Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God's personal moral will and, as Anderson notes, our sharing in his ministry of advocacy...
...resolves the moral ambivalence otherwise present in the caregiver [And what caregiver has not felt this ambivalence!]. This advocacy frees the situation from the moral autonomy that offers the "easy out"--my pain gives me a right to get even with the one who hurt me, or, the injustice I have suffered gives me the right to break out of my commitment. At the same time, this advocacy that binds all persons, whether victims of their own immoral acts or of the acts of others, to the moral will of God also sets free those bound by the inhuman laws and practices of others. The person is also thus set free to forgive, which is a moral action related to his or her own goal of healing (p221).
I can hear legalists crying, "Situation ethics!!" But theological ethics always takes account of the [human] situation because it is the moral will of God to do so. Said another way, God's moral will always is an extension of his grace, which is for not against people. God, the ultimate moral advocate, in grace always moves toward not away from people. As Scripture says, the letter [the law] kills, but the Spirit [grace] gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). Anderson comments:
[The God of grace] enters into covenant relation with human beings and as covenant partner, aligns himself with them over and against nature [as in the natural consequences of sin].... God's judgment against sin, from the standpoint of theological ethics, is itself a continued intervention of divine grace. For if the sinner were left to the consequences of moral and spiritual disorientation, human personhood would disappear beneath the sickness and turmoil of life...
The moral good of divine grace is manifested by God's intervention for the sake of restoring persons, even if the consequence of sin is viewed as divine judgment. God's judgment may be an expression of the consequences of violating a moral law, but his grace is an expression of God's moral will which has as its goal the moral good of forgiveness (pp224-225). 
A theological ethic of moral advocacy therefore calls upon us to participate in every case in what God is doing to extend his grace and forgiveness to the persons in crisis--even when the crisis is the result of their own sin. Indeed, the offer of grace to the person though advocacy should not be dependent on a determination of whether or not the person is suffering due to their own sin. As Anderson notes,
Grace is itself God's moral intervention between the person and the consequences of sin, even if that consequence is viewed as divine judgment (p226).
The moral advocate also provides for the suffering person a transfer of spiritual power via the empowering of the suffering person to have faith in the moral good available from a good God. This transfer happens as the advocate shares the pain and agony of the one who suffers--this is the ultimate expression of Christian empathy--feeling what the other person feels, even as a consequence of their own sin. This is precisely what Jesus did in taking upon himself our fallen nature with its sin in order to share in our suffering and in doing so to minister God's power to us--his power to heal (save). As Anderson notes,
It is the suffering of God that brings those who suffer into contact with his divine power and goodness... The caregiver reveals the suffering of God through identification with the pain of human suffering, and releases the power of God by bringing God into contact with human weakness and distress. This is an incarnational kind of care giving... (p228).
Anderson concludes his chapter on moral advocacy with this statement:
It is the privilege of those who give pastoral care to see indirectly the very glory of the moral goodness of God in the faces and lives of those for whom we are moral advocates (p232).

November 7, 2015

Moral police or moral advocates?

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12345678, 910111314.

Woman at the Well by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)
Ray Anderson advocates what he refers to as Christopraxis---an approach toward ministry that flows from what he calls a theological ethic. In this post we'll see what that looks like when pastors address the moral crises in our culture. Anderson calls pastors to respond not as moral police but as moral advocates who participate with Jesus in what he is now doing by the Spirit to heal a hurting world.

When it comes to morals, values trump beliefs

It's common for people today to decry the moral decline in our culture. Even those who express belief in a divine being are doing what seems right in their own eyes, rather than what would conform their behavior to a universally accepted moral code. What we see in this is that behavior springs more from personal values than from universal beliefs. Said another way, when it comes to behavior, values trump beliefs. Anderson comments:
Personal values are what we spend money, time and energy to achieve or experience. In our culture, behavior reflects values more than beliefs. For example, North American family sociologists Lucy and Dennis Guernsey have suggested that marital compatibility may depend more on common values than on a common belief system (p207).
Does this mean that morality, once defined by universal and objective beliefs, now is entirely relative to personal/individual values (preferences)? In a word, "yes." This is a significant (and perhaps troubling), but a reality that pastors must face in our era of increased individualism and cultural pluralism. How should pastors respond? Anderson points us in the direction of Christopraxis grounded in a theological (incarnational Trinitarian) ethic.

What does Christopraxis look like in pastoral care?

Anderson notes that through Christopraxis, pastors join Jesus in addressing the moral crisis with a theological ethic that leads to serving not as moral police (enforcing certain behaviors) but as moral advocates. What does that look like? Anderson offers the example of how God himself related to Cain and his family following Cain's murder of Abel:
A basis for a theological ethic in pastoral care can be found in the observation that God intervenes in the supposed moral right of Abel's family to exact vengeance on Cain. The "mark of Cain" is not a banishment from the human social order but a "moral mandate" by which he is to be permitted to live within the human community without fear of retaliation (Genesis 4:13-16). God becomes the moral advocate of one who has himself broken the moral law by his act of fratricide. An immoral act does not disqualify one from the moral advocacy of God. Thus God's moral will can be the basis for moral law and at the same time operate with freedom to uphold the life of the one who has broken the law. God's moral will clearly has a pastoral or redemptive dimension, directing pastoral care in cases where an apparent moral dilemma appears based on the moral law alone (p209, italics added).
When pastors operating as a moral policemen face challenging moral dilemmas, they tend to emphasize "laying down the law." But when they operate instead as moral advocates, they base what they do on a theological ethic, which means they seek to serve as advocates of the offenders (sinners) as persons (and an advocate of all other persons involved in the particular situation). In doing so, they will be reflecting the nature and purpose of God as revealed to us in Jesus. Anderson lists some of the foundational principles that give rise to this theological ethic expressed through Christopraxis:
  1. The character of God, revealed definitively and fully in the person (being) and activity (doing) of Jesus, is the moral basis for God's creation. Morality, therefore, is fundamentally relational---about a person, not a code of law. The morality we see in the person and work of Jesus is grounded in God's own faithfulness, justice, mercy and compassion. Therefore a theological ethic is grounded in these same characteristics, or, better said, participates with God in being faithful, just, merciful and compassionate.
  2. The moral character of creation is revealed through human beings as God's image bearers---those who are "moral agents, not because of adherence to abstract moral law, but because they bear the very moral character of God" (p210).
  3. Human character is expressed principally through the moral quality of social relations. As Anderson notes, "The intrinsic value of each person is an absolute moral reality, as each bears the human image of divine moral character" (p211). That image is expressed primarily socially (in community) not individually. Anderson comments: "The character that underlies moral decisions and actions is not the possession of individuals...but the moral quality of core human relationships" (p211). For example, Anderson notes how Paul admonishes us to "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," then goes on to give moral/ethical instructions concerning married couples, parents, children, slaves and masters (Ephesians 5:21-6:9).
  4. The formation of character takes place where personal values are created out of moral experience. Teaching of moral principles in an abstract way will have little effect. Instead we must show through act and word how moral character has personal value. Anderson comments: 
     The formation of Christian character is not achieved by the teaching of Christian doctrine alone, nor by setting down rigid rules of moral discipline. Rules are necessary to set boundaries, but it is relationship, rather than rules that forms character. When the Bible speaks of character, it does so in terms of core human and moral spiritual values rather than religious rituals and regulations. The crucial moral experiences that contribute to the formation of character do not take place in church meetings but in the family in the primary encounters of people's daily lives (p212, italics added).

Using Scripture in moral instruction

It's common in many churches for the Bible to be viewed as a source of moral instruction---setting forth laws to obey to keep people from immoral behavior. But as Anderson notes, this use of the Bible misses the primary and thus more important purpose for Holy Scripture. Anderson comments:
"The Bible is more important for helping Christian community to interpret the God whom it knows in its existential faith than it is for giving a revealed morality that is to be translated and applied in the contemporary world... The Christian moral life, then, is not a response to moral imperatives, but to a Person, the living God... What the Bible makes known, then , is not a morality but a reality, a living presence to whom man responds." [quoting James Gustafson]
The Bible cannot be used as a method of arriving at ethical principles or moral criteria abstractable from the participation of God himself in the moral situation of human life. Or to put it another way, the Bible cannot be used as a substitute for moral freedom grounded in responsibility.
While the Bible clearly gives authoritative status to the will of God as a determining factor in theological ethics applied through pastoral care, the Bible cannot be seen primarily as an ethical textbook, whether prescriptively, instructively or illustratively. There is a wrong use of the Bible in attempts to discern God's will in crucial pastoral situations, as well as a right use (pp213-214).
It is a mistake to approach the Bible as a source of proof texts for defining strategies or solutions to modern problems. This was the error of the Pharisees in Jesus' day. You'll recall how they used an Old Testament proof text in passing judgment on the woman caught in adultery. In contrast, Jesus' approach went in an entirely different direction, reflecting not a proof text, but the character of God with an eye toward the future of the woman in the short term and beyond. Jesus theological ethic had a decidedly eschatological perspective that anticipated the ultimate expression of God's will and design for this woman (and all humankind).

Jesus interpreted the moral will of God in terms of the goal toward which God's design and purpose for humanity point. The apostle Paul had the same perspective, seeing the ultimate purpose and goal of God for human beings as leading to full equality and parity in the kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28), even if certain accommodations to a lack of equality/parity must be accepted in the present situation.

Is this situation ethics?

Is the theological ethics that gives rise to Christopraxis a type of situation ethics? In one sense, yes it is---Jesus always adapted himself to the "situation" at hand as he ministered to real people in real circumstances during his earthly ministry, and he continues to make these adaptations as he serves us as our Mediator and High Priest. But his adaptations are not based in changing, ephemeral personal desires/preferences, but on the unchanging character of God who, in Christ, by the Spirit, has accommodated (and continues to accommodate) himself to our situation in order to be with us, bringing us forward toward his ultimate design/purpose/goal for us all.

God's ethic (theological ethics) is, therefore, fundamentally about people and their ultimate best (their salvation). The ethic we embrace and exemplify in extending pastoral care must follow suit if it is to be fully Christ-centered (i.e. Christopraxis). That ethic leads to real participation in the love and life of the God who, in Christ, by the Spirit, remains free to be "with" each person in their particular situation, and through that personal presence lead them toward God's ultimate best for them and all humanity This is what we mean by being moral advocates rather than moral police. More about that next time.

October 20, 2015

What about regeneration and evangelism?

Christ on the Cross by Carl Heinrich Bloch
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
I'll take a break here from our series covering The Shape of Practical Theology to share a letter I wrote a few years ago to a group of pastors I met with to discuss incarnational Trinitarian theology. Some of their questions and concerns had to do with the related topics of regeneration (being "born again") and evangelism---how are these to be understood in the light of a theology of inclusion? Here is what I wrote to them:

In discussing our inclusion in the triune life of God in and through Jesus, a question pertaining to the related issues of regeneration and evangelism often emerges. It goes something like this: Given our inclusion in Christ through his incarnation, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension; how are we to understand what happens to us when we are "born again" (regenerated) at the moment we turn to God in faith?

The key issue in answering this particular question is understanding that Jesus (who is fully God and fully human) is the beginning point and focus of all such questions. As I've wrestled with this topic, I've been aided by Thomas Torrance in his books The Mediation of Christ and The Christian Doctrine of God. I also have been aided by Michael Jenkins’ book, Invitation to Theology and Baxter Kruger’s book The Great Dance. Perhaps an excerpt concerning regeneration and evangelism from The Mediation of Christ would contribute to our dialogue on these issues:
It is significant that the New Testament does not use the term regeneration (Gk= paliggenesia), as so often modern evangelical theology does, for what goes on in the human heart. It is used only of the great regeneration that took place in and through the Incarnation and of the final transformation of the world when Jesus Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead and make all things new. That is to say, the Gospel speaks of regeneration as wholly bound up with Jesus Christ himself.
....[We are] born again when Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary and rose again from the virgin tomb, the first-born from the dead…[we are] hid with Christ in God and will be revealed only when Jesus Christ comes again. He took [our] corrupt humanity in his Incarnation, sanctified, cleansed and redeemed it, giving it new birth, in his death and resurrection.  In other words, our new birth, our regeneration, our conversion, are what has taken place in Jesus Christ himself, so that when we speak of our conversion of our regeneration we are referring to our sharing in the conversion or regeneration of our humanity brought about by Jesus in and through himself for our sake. In a profound and proper sense, therefore, we must speak of Jesus Christ as constituting in himself the very substance of our conversion, so that we must think of him as taking our place even in our acts of repentance and personal decision, for without them all so-called repentance and conversion are empty. Since a conversion in that truly evangelical sense is a turning away from ourselves to Christ, it calls for a conversion from our in-turned notions of conversion to one which is grounded and sustained in Christ Jesus himself (pp. 85-86). 
Of course this vision of our inclusion in Christ causes us to think about our evangelistic invitations. To what are we inviting people? Torrance continues:
The Gospel is to be proclaimed in such a way that full place is given to the man Jesus in his Person and Work as the Mediator between God and man... [a message of] unconditional grace and reconciling exchange. The pattern had already been clearly set by our Lord when he proclaimed that all who wished to be his disciples must renounce themselves, or give up all right to themselves, take up the cross and follow him, and when he laid it down as a basic principle that those who want to save their lives will lose them. Face to face with Christ all would-be followers find themselves called into radical question, together with their preconceptions, self-centered desires and self-will, for to have him as Lord and Savior means that he takes their place in order to give them his place. The preaching of the Gospel in that radical form is not easy, for when we call upon people to repent and believe in Jesus Christ that they may be saved, we have a great difficulty in doing that in such a way that we do not throw people back upon themselves in autonomous acts of personal repentance and decision, or encourage them to come to Christ for their own sake rather than for Christ’s sake, in direct conflict with the very principle about motives laid down by Jesus.
There is, then, an evangelical way to preach the Gospel and an unevangelical way to preach it. The Gospel is preached in an unevangelical way, as happens so often in modern evangelicalism, when the preacher announces: this is what Jesus Christ has done for you, but you will not be saved unless you make your own personal decision for Christ as your Savior. Or: Jesus Christ loved you and gave his life for you on the Cross, but you will be saved only if you give your heart to him. In that event what is actually coming across to people is not a Gospel of unconditional grace but some other Gospel of conditional grace which belies the essential nature and content of the Gospel as it is in Jesus. 
How, then, is the Gospel to be preached in a genuinely evangelical way? Surely in such a way that full and central place is given to the vicarious humanity of Jesus as the all-sufficient human response to the love of God which he has freely and unconditionally provided for us. We preach and teach the Gospel evangelically, then, in such a way as this: God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ as his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very Being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualized his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself, Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from you every believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his live in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God but as man. He had acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions and your responses to God’s love and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledge you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted by him. Therefore, renounce yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus as you Lord and Savior. 
To preach the Gospel of the unconditional grace of God in that unconditional way is to set before people the astonishing good news of what God has freely provided for us in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. To repent and believe in Jesus Christ and commit myself to him on that basis means that I do not need to look over my shoulder all the time to see whether I have really given myself personally to him, whether I really believe and trust him, whether my faith is at all adequate, for in faith it is not upon my faith, my believing or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what Jesus Christ has done for me in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father. That means that I am completely liberated from all ulterior movies in believing or following Jesus Christ, for on the ground of his vicarious human response for me, I am free for spontaneous joyful response and worship and service as I could not otherwise be (pp. 93-95).

October 11, 2015

Sharing in Jesus' paracletic ministry

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 123456789, 1012, 1314.

Anderson notes that Jesus' mission "was not entirely completed in his death and resurrection" (p. 189). He understands that Jesus' missional activity continues as he sends the Spirit to form and gift the church to participate with him in his ongoing paracletic ministry on earth.

He Who is Without Sin by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)

Back to the future

According to Anderson, Jesus' ongoing ministry has a decidedly "eschatological nature" in that it brings into the present, bit-by-bit and through the church, the future fullness of the kingdom. That is why Paul refers to the church as God's "new creation"---the out-working (or one might say the in-breaking) of what God has done to reconcile the world to himself in and through Christ and continues to do, by the Spirit, through the church's ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-18 ESV). Anderson comments:
[Paul] argued that with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ a new age had broken into the old, so that these eras now overlapped. As David Ford puts it [in his essay in On Being the Church edited by Colin Gunton and Daniel Hardy], "The new is being realized now through the Holy Spirit, so the most urgent thing is to live according to the Spirit. It certainly involves present eschatological freedom, hope beyond death and the significance of the Church in history." 
...As regards contemporary ecclesiology there are two implications that seem most important. The first is that the determinisms of history are broken by the gift of the Spirit as the down-payment of what is to come. If God is free to open history from the future then the future need not mirror the past. In the Church this combines with the message of the cross to allow for discontinuities and innovations. The criterion for something is no longer whether that is how the Church has done it in the past or even whether Jesus said it (cf. Paul on his means of subsistence) but whether it embodies the new creation and its vision of love... For Paul the content of eschatology is christological and the final reality is face to face" (p. 191).

Following the Spirit forward

This being so, what unifies the church in Anderson's view is not historical precedence and institutions, but following after the Holy Spirit who opens the future to the church as it participates with Jesus in his present and ongoing mission to the world. Unfortunately, the church has tended to overemphasize the issue of an institutionalized apostolic succession and apostolic authority. This has often paralyzed the church, keeping it backward-looking rather than forward-moving in step with the Spirit. It is Jesus, not the apostles or other church leaders, now dead, who is the "apostolic source of the church's life and mission in the world through his power and presence as Holy Spirit" (p. 193).

Though we should look with respect to the past workings of the Spirit in the church, our primary question is not What did Jesus do?, but What is Jesus, through the Spirit, now doing? The general answer to that latter question is that the Spirit is at work shaping the church not into what it once was (at some supposed ideal time, such as the apostolic age) but into what it will be at the end of the age. Anderson comments:
The church itself should seek to become the church that Christ desires to find when he comes, where distinctions of race, religion, ethnicity, economic and political status, and gender identity will no longer be found in the church and its apostolic life (p. 194)
....The church does not "push" the kingdom into the world through its own institutional and pragmatic strategies. Rather it is "pulled" into the world as it follows the praxis of the Spirit. The church is thus constantly being "re-created" through the mission of the Spirit. At the same time, it has historical and ecclesial continuity and universality through its participation in the person and mission of Christ Jesus through the Spirit. 
The ministry of the church is apostolic when it recognizes the eschatological praxis of the Spirit in the present age and interprets this in accordance with Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). The author of Hebrews reveals the priestly nature of Jesus when he argues that Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek and not Aaron (Hebrews 6-7). Melchizedek was "without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life" (Hebrews 7:3 NASB). Apostolic authority is [therefore] eschatological, not merely genealogical (p. 195).

The paracletic nature of Jesus' ministry

And so, by the Spirit, we look to Jesus, acknowledging his past activity in and through the church in its history, but with our eyes on the horizon---looking forward toward where Jesus, through the Spirit is leading. As we do, we always keep in mind that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God "is the advocate of all persons, not only those who are 'in Christ'" (p. 200). Through the Spirit, Jesus is present with all and as the Paraclete (the "Advocate" who "comes along side") he is ministering to all. Note Anderson's comment on this vital point concerning the paracletic ministry of Jesus:
Practical theology issues from the perspective of this paracletic ministry of the Spirit of Christ taking place in the world before it takes place in the church. This is to say, Christ is not first of all contained by the nature of the church, so that only when Christ is shared by the church does the world encounter him. Rather as Thomas Torrance has put it, "Christ clothed with His gospel meets with Christ clothed with the desperate needs of men... Christ is present as the advocate of the people who have not yet heard the good news" (p. 201, emphasis added). 
Thus we understand that the calling of the church is not to bring Jesus to the world, but to join with Jesus in what he now is doing in the world.  With this orientation, the church will both embrace what Jesus has done already, and walk forward in faith with him into the fullness of his kingdom.

Objective and subjective aspects of the one gospel

The church walks forward with Jesus by proclaiming the gospel, which is not a message of What could be...if, but a message of What is already (that may be personally received). Anderson comments:
[The apostle Paul] knows that forgiveness has already been accomplished from God's side and that God "does not count trespasses" against persons who are sinners. But forgiveness has not yet been accomplished until there is reconciliation from the human side toward God and toward one another (p. 202 italics added).
Anderson is here noting the objective (universal) and subjective (personal) aspects of the gospel. Objectively, God's forgiveness has been extended already to everyone. Subjectively, that forgiveness is actualized (Anderson says "accomplished") when it is personally received.

It's important to note that both the objective and subjective aspects speak to God's work of grace by his Son, through his Spirit. This is the work the church is called to share in by making the gospel known and thus accessible. A principal way the church does that is by declaring that God has forgiven sinners already (the objective or universal aspect of the gospel), along with offering the call to personal acceptance, which leads to personal transformation (the subjective or personal aspect of the gospel). To declare one aspect without the other is to offer an incomplete gospel that is in danger of becoming a false gospel. Anderson elaborates:
To give assurance of pardon and forgiveness to persons based on God's reconciliation to the world through Christ is not wrong. But... the word of absolution from sin based on the work of Christ in salvation history is premature apart from the praxis of forgiveness as the work of Christ in the hearts and lives of people through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit .
Let me say it as clearly as I can, "a vision of forgiveness and freedom comes from the burning light of Pentecost before it can be seen in the sunless shadows of the cross. This has enormous theological significance both for the proclamation of the gospel of Christ as well as for the spiritual formation of Christ in the lives of people. 
A theology that is not continually enlightened by the praxis of Christ at work in the transformation of human lives can become toxic theology A theology that does not begin and end with grace both from God's side as well as from the human side is a theology that binds "heavy burdens" (Matthew 23:4 NASB) and sets "a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1 NASB) on those who look for freedom and forgiveness. A theology that produces such a spiritual piety poisons rather than purifies...
The theology of Pentecost humanizes and heals, for it is a theology of resurrection and life, not of death and despair... Practical theology in the mode of paraclesis is a summons and invitation for humanity to become truly human; it is an exhortation to move out of the place of sorrow and humiliation into a community of reconciliation, peace and dignity. Christopraxis as a form of the real presence of Christ is a pledge of comfort and consolation to the oppressed and broken... For the church this means that actions involving advocacy for the full humanity of persons have a priority and authority grounded in the humanity and ministry of Christ himself (pp. 202-3).
For more on this topic from Ray Anderson, click here and here and here.