“Spiritual formation is God’s work in creating a new Temple; a community of His loving Presence in the world.”

This is the definition of spiritual formation I would like to work with. I have capitalized the word Temple because at Pentecost the old Temple religion died, and God tabernacled in His people. (This was one implication of the incarnation –the language of John 1 “the Word tented among us” — and according to NT Wright “New Law, New Temple, New World” (2004) it is also the meaning of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, echoing OT theophany, the giving of the Law at Sinai etc.)

Currently our practice of formation in evangelical circles is to sit the “kiddies” in tidy rows while the “adults” deliver a lecture. Ok, that is a nasty image for a sermon.. but if the medium is the message.. if what we DO speaks louder than what we SAY.. we need a serious revision to both our THEOLOGY and our PRACTICE if we hope to shape apprentices of Jesus.

The problem is that if only the “adults” get to play.. if only the few are really adequate servants of the Gospel…there is little reason for the mass of God’s people to worry about theology or practice or spiritual formation. Unfortunately, a lot of our unspoken messages (the way we gather, who gets the mike etc) are to the effect that only a few of us are really called and co-missioned with Christ.

Now, all this assumes that the Sunday gathering is at the center of community life. Of course, that shouldn’t be the case (see this article). But when you count up the energy that goes into that single event, including mortgages and salaries, that’s the way it is. That event is paradigmatic.. it shapes everything else we do (in the words of Churchill, “we create our buildings then our buildings create us.”)
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This raises an interesting question. Where does our theological legitimation of hierarchy actually come from? Why do we gather the way we do and do the things we do when we gather? What are the purposes we think we achieve in a large theatre center on Sunday mornings? Did we really think we were doing discipleship? Sadly, there is virtually no evidence that anyone is changed in large meetings.. in fact the evidence is the opposite.

Which takes us back to the question. Since we practice a hierarchy (from the Latin “hieros” or priest).. how do we legitimate it? What theology roots this practice?

It can’t come from the Trinity. There is no evidence in Scripture that there is a hierarchy in the Godhead; rather the opposite. There appears to be an egalitarian quality of relationship, mutual submission and shared purpose.

It can’t come from NT teachings on the body of Christ. There is only one head in the body.

It can’t be modeled on the life of Jesus Himself. He had the highest status, rights to all allegiance, all service, even worship.. and made Himself lower than all, taking the form of a servant. He gave up everything, and walked among the poorest of the poor (the kenosis passage).

Some of the implications are spelled out by Mark Strom in “Reframing Our Conversation with Paul,” (IVP, 2000)

Paul urged leaders to imitate his personal example of how the message of Jesus inverted status. He was at pains to dissociate himself from the sophists, those travelling orator-teacher-lawyers of his day (1 Cor 2:1-5). Though undoubtedly educated and skilled, he did not imitate the sophists" eloquence and persona. In so doing, Paul set himself on a collision course with the contemporary conventions of personal honour”?and with his potential patrons. He refused to show favouritism towards individuals or ekkl?siai. The gospel offered him rights, but he refused them. Christ was not a means to a career. Yet the agendas and processes of maintaining and reforming evangelical life and thought remain the domain of professional scholars and clergy. Their ministry is their career.

Dying and rising with Christ meant status reversal. In Paul"s case, he deliberately stepped down in the world. We must not romanticize this choice. He felt the shame of it amongst his peers and potential patrons, yet held it as the mark of his sincerity. Moreover, it played a critical role in the interplay of his life and thought. Tentmaking was critical, even central, to his life and message. His labour and ministry were mutually explanatory. Yet, for most of us, ”?tent-making" belongs in the realms of missionary journals and far-flung shores. As a model for ministry in the USA, Britain or Australia, it remains as unseemly to most of us as it did to the Corinthians. At best it is second best.

Evangelicalism will not shake its abstraction, idealism and elitism until theologians and clergy are prepared to step down in their worlds. Some might argue that since the world often shows contempt for the pastoral role, then professional ministry is a step back. But that is to ignore the more pertinent set of social realities. Evangelicalism has its own ranks, careers, financial security, marks of prestige, and rewards. Within that world, professional ministry is rank and status.

5 Comments on moving from hierarchy to peoplehood

  1. Good words Len. Thanks for the thought and the time.

    The opening definition sets a good place and goal. I look forward to seeing how your paradigm of temple develops.

    This is a good lecture/ sermon, with one person speaking while the rest of us listen in 🙂 – the medium is the message. Is this a better medium than the Sunday sermon, that is a subjective question. I like both myself, assumeing that each are prepared and delivered with quality.

    I heartily agree that the Sunday gathering is not the center of the community life. However, it is a significant part. This has been true biblically and historically for the church, gathering sdoes some fantastic things for us. It reminds us that we are part of something larger than we are, it unites us to a whole, we hear the Word preached in community (which I believe, along with the Westminster divines that the Word preached is accompanied by the Spirit’s power. This assumes that what is being preached is the Word.), we share in the Lord’s table, we experience the joy of corporate singing. I would say that much more personal formation takes place on Sunday than you might give credit for, I’m sorry it has not been the case for you.

    I dont quite understand that jump from buildings to hierarchy. It didnt work for me.

    If by hierarchy you mean a person being superior, I agree that it is unbiblical. If be that you mean, one person exercising authority over another, than it is thoroughout the NT, from Paul’s practice(your quote was fantastic, showing how Paul chose to exercise that authority, which was different is some ways than Peter and the other Apostles) and Paul’s direct teaching about the establishment of elders, deacons etc. These are certainly not places of superiority, though we have made them that in Evangelical circles — that needs some serious reformation. Reformation is different from revolution. We reform by doing it correctly, not by throwing it out. I have counseled many young couples who are considering not marrying because their parents did such a poor job of marriage. I say, “get married and do it right.”

    Finally, I would like to hear more of what you speak about mutual submission within the Trinity. Submission, I would say, is economic. There is no ontological subordination in the Trinity, each member identifies fully with the other in perfect relationship from all eternity. In God’s work in the world, creation, incarnation and redemption the three work in submissive relationship. But I cannot think of an example of where the Father submits to the Son or the Spirit. Yes, they are mutually related and equal essense. No, there is not mutual submission.

    In this case, the relationships of God in the Trinity set a proper example for authority/ submission (I believe that authority speaks of responsability, not power. Power is an abuse of authority.)relationships in which all parties are essentially equal yet function in differing roles for the common mission.

    Eager to hear more.

  2. David Porter says:

    neo… What is the difference between a pastor getting up in front of his congregation and giving a sermon sunday after sunday and someone posting some comments on a web site?

    I think there is a world of difference, and the difference is in the “context”. Books, articles, and web sites all have the same “context” that is they are simply impersonal information of which one can chosse to read and interact with in the heart and mind.

    On the other hand the sunday sermon has a whole different context. Behind the whole sunday sermon is a whole culture of Christianity.

    When I read a book I feel difference of “status” between me and the author but when I go to “church” it is obvious that only “pastors” can preach and if any one else gets to “speek” it is because the pastor “allowed” them to. The hearers in our culture understand the pastor is the one called to ministry and the rest wait for him to tell them what the “vision” is and how they will make it happen. In a book I am allowed to openly disagree and a sunday sermon I am not. with a book I can allow it to help me fullfill my call in Christ where as in the sunday sermon as we have it, I am put in the position of do what I am told.

    As far as the Sunday gathering goes, I was once a pastor and I would often survey the people and these revealed that people rarely felt any personal formation taking place or any sence of “community” and over 80% felt they did not even have one “close person friend” who also attended the church.

    By the way revolution and reformation, as I see it, always go hand in hand. There are always things which are kept but done “right” but then there are other things which need to be thrown out.

  3. David Porter says:

    I made some real bad type-os hope I still made sense.

  4. Len says:

    neo, great feedback, thanks!

    I haven’t read much on the Trinity.. economic vs other.. I”ll have to pursue that.

    I agree we are given authority, but not authority “over” anyone.. perhaps a language issue, but I think maybe contextual also.. authority in a community where mutual submission is operative tends to look and feel very different than that which is seen in most churches, where we are wrestling with imported cultural models. Robbymac, care to chime in?

  5. David, I agree that there is a difference in the medium, that is the point I was making, but both are a medium.

    I assume (perhaps you do not) that there is such thing as a trustworthy preacher who submits his own opinion and will to power to that of the simple exposition of Scripture which rightly exercises power over all of the congregation, including the one called to preach.

    If one person has the power to “allow” or not allow another to speak, then something is wrong, certainly. On the other hand, there are many, many good and godly people who because of ability should not speak in the public gathering – some of them are preachers unfortunately. Not all are called to be teachers.

    Your 80% number about your congregation is awful. Something is out of balance there. I would hesitate taking that bad experience and painting the rest of the church with it. I suggest that if you took the same informal survey in the congregation that I currently serve you would get a very different response. A called, gifted and trained teacher is a very effective tool in the hand of God.

    The difference between revolution and reformation is attitude. Revoltuion seeks to tear down, reformation seeks to restore. One who speaks of revolution should find no hearing in Christ’s church.