“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.