Sharing ministry with Jesus (Christopraxis)

Central to incarnational Trinitarian (Nicene) faith are the twin doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Though both involve amazing, mysterious truths, these doctrines are highly "practical" in that they address the reality of how things actually are, both with God and humanity. Theologian Ray Anderson addresses this reality in The Shape of Practical Theology, drawing on insights from Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. According to Anderson,
[Bonhoeffer] laid the groundwork for a praxis-oriented theology through an ethic of discipleship and obedience, where theory emerges only through engagement with truth as an ethical demand in the form of the claim of Christ through the other person. (pp. 17-18)
From The Visual Bible: The Gospel of Matthew.

Anderson emphasizes how theology (theory) flows from and so is informed by practice (praxis). We see this dynamic in operation in the way Jesus ministered to his first followers. He did not disciple them with lectures on theory. Instead, he said to them: "Follow me!" and as they "tagged along" with Jesus as he went about, interacting redemptively with people, the reality of who Jesus was (theology) began to emerge from observing and thus experiencing Jesus’ ministry practice (praxis). If was only through years of reflection on these encounters with the person and work of Jesus that the apostles came to understand the theology that under-girded (and so interpreted) their experience with Jesus.

Anderson and Bonhoeffer both emphasize that the disciples' encounters with Jesus occurred in community. For both authors, truth must be experienced to be believed, and it is within the fellowship of the church (the body of Christ—the community of the disciples of Jesus) that this truth is lived out and so meaningfully encountered. Anderson also notes that the relationship between theory and practice is interactive (or we might say iterative), meaning non-linear, occurring in a sort of feedback loop: "Theory and practice inform and influence each other in such a way that all practice includes theory, and theory can only be discerned through practice" (p. 21).

One sees the dynamic of this feedback loop at work in a careful reading of the four Gospels, where we not only hear Jesus' spoken words, but are told of his practical actions (his “missional praxis”). As Anderson notes, it might be better for us if Jesus' actions rather than his words were highlighted in the Bible with red type.

With these thoughts in mind, Anderson calls on the church to embrace practical theology, which he defines as
a dynamic process of reflective, critical inquiry into the praxis of the church in the world and God's purposes for humanity, carried out in the light of Christian Scripture and tradition, and in critical dialog with other sources of knowledge. As a theological discipline its primary purpose is to ensure that the church's public proclamations and praxis in the world faithfully reflect the nature and purpose of God's continuing mission to the world and in so doing authentically address the contemporary context into which the church seeks to minister. (p. 22)
Practical theology thus "extends systematic theology into the life and praxis of the Christian community... [taking] into account the truth of experience," which means considering the "contemporary reality and presence of Christ." Doing this gives us a "living theology," which Anderson refers to as "Christopraxis" (pp. 23-28). As he notes, we find this perspective in the ministry of the apostle Paul:
It was the contemporary and present reality of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that stirred [Paul] to theological reflection.... Paul viewed the ministry of the Holy Spirit as the ministry of the risen and ascended Christ... [For example,] it was the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of uncircumcised Gentile believers that... prompted Paul to declare that circumcision no longer should be a criterion of salvation through Jesus Christ (Gal. 5:6). (p. 30)
Rather than an incidental afterthought (that can easily be dispensed with), mission (ministry praxis) is the focus of practical theology. Anderson’s point is that the mission of God precedes and thus defines the theology, and it is for mission that the Holy Spirit then forms the church. Anderson comments:
The mission of the church is to embody in its corporate life and ministry the continuing messianic and incarnational nature of the Son of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The nature of the church is [thus] determined in its existence as the mission of God to the world. (p. 31)
Anderson thus points out how practical theology unites theory and practice, doing away with any dualistic conception that artificially separates the two in our thinking or practice. This is an important point to note, because, unfortunately, some who embrace incarnational Trinitarian theology find themselves stepping aside from mission, feeling that it somehow undermines the theology. But the truth is that incarnational Trinitarian theology is grounded in the reality of who God is (as Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and in the reality of what the Father, through Jesus, by the Spirit, in and through the church, is actually (really) doing to bring healing into the lives of real, suffering people.

A Trinitarian theology (knowledge of God), which flows from and is validated by Trinitarian missiology (knowledge of God’s mission), gives rise to a Trinitarian ecclesiology (knowledge of the church) and thus to the incarnational and Trinitarian ministry of the church. This flow (which speaks to a hierarchy) is unpacked by GCS President Gary Deddo in his essay titled "The Church and Its Ministry."  Here is an excerpt from Dr. Deddo’s introductory comments:
Ministry in the church of Jesus Christ is enriched by a robust theology of the church [ecclesiology] because the central activities of Christian ministry have always taken place in the context of a particular group of persons who gather in Christ’s name. Christian ministry is an integral aspect of what the church is, and what it is was instituted by its Lord and Savior to accomplish. The nature of the church, which comes first, informs the nature of the church’s ministry. In that way, Christian ministry serves the church, the Body of Christ, not vice versa. (p. 1)

Key questions

Our Trinitarian faith challenges us as pastors and ministry leaders to constantly ask an important diagnostic question: How does this aspect of our ministry practice flow from and so properly represent our knowledge of God (theology), of his mission (missiology), his church (ecclesiology) and so its ministry? Along those lines, here are some secondary questions to ponder:
  1. Is this ministry activity truly with Christ, or is it merely for Christ?
  2. What is Jesus actually doing, and how, through this ministry activity or program can I (we) join in what Jesus is doing here and now?
  3. What relationship does this ministry activity have with the ongoing mission of the triune God in the world (missiology) and the Holy Trinity’s design for the church of God in the world (ecclesiology)?
  4. How does this ministry activity create a "place" (time and space—or call it an "environment") in which participants can have real (and thus transformative) encounters with the Father, in and through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit.
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The content of this post is excerpted and adapted from a lecture by Ted Johnston in his Grace Communion SeminaryPractice of Ministry course. For a related You're Included video interview with Ray Anderson, click here.

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