Authority, Community and Truth in the Postmodern World

 

“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid,
which is Jesus Christ.” 1 Cor. 3:11

I was sitting with a friend over coffee, and we were talking about faith. Somewhere the conversation took a turn, and we found ourselves talking about truth.

"I've always wondered why Jesus never answered Pilate's question.. was it because He knew that the answer wasn't really wanted? Or did he recognize that Pilate's question was philosophical, where His answer could only be personal. You know.. the same clash of paradigms we are seeing all around us.. talking different languages.."

"Ah.. good one," he chuckled. "But it still leaves the whole question begging. What is truth and can we talk about it… but we have to. I think we're making an error by losing a word like "absolute."

"I identify with your concern," I responded, "but I don't think the loss of that word means we are losing our grounding. The word "absolute" has been puzzling to me lately. It feels like a word that is so anchored in the modern paradigm we have no way to translate it. I'm not sure we can take it with us.. it has too much baggage. Maybe the reality that it is a technical philosophical word is a good warning.. and a call back to the same paradox that kept Jesus silent in front of Pilate…"

Not long afterward, another friend stated his conviction that truth exists only in community. I agreed that truth is not merely propositional, and I also agreed that some communities have worshipped the Bible instead of the living God, but I argued that community is founded on something bigger and more permanent than itself, even if that “truth” is only imperfectly known. As Stanley Grenz put it,

"We agree that in this world we will witness a struggle between competing narratives and interpretations of reality. But we add that while all interpretations are in some sense invalid, they cannot all be equally invalid. We believe that conflicting interpretations can be evaluated according to a criterion that in some sense transcends them all. Because the “word became flesh” in Jesus Christ." A Primer on Postmodernism, p. 165

All these discussions beg definition. Words like “truth,” “absolute,” and even “community” require a context. Yet postmoderns regard definition as part of the problem; it is limiting and rigid; it mitigates against the fluidity that is foundational to discovery and personal process. We lose as much information as we gain when we establish a definition.

While recognizing these dangers and challenges, I want to find a middle ground. I want to work with some definitions, however personal and tentative, and describe the approach to truth, revelation, and authority that make sense of my world.

The New Testament

Let’s begin with the New Testament. It was around long before modernity and the distortions associated with modernity and the Enlightenment.

First, let’s note what the New Testament is, and what it is not. What the New Testament is not is a systematic theology text book. The Lord could easily have given us this, but he didn’t. Instead, we are left with stories from real life. We are left with embodied truth, fleshed out in all the chaos and mess that accompanies fallen people in a fallen world. In addition to these stories, we have some letters, which focus mostly on how we should live in view of what Jesus has done for us.

But why didn’t the Lord leave us with a theology textbook? Wouldn’t that have made it far easier for us to answer all the thorny questions? I’m thinking of questions like, “Why do little children have to suffer?” and “Why is there a devil?” and “If God is good and all powerful, why does he allow evil to exist?” and “Should we fight a war with Iraq?” (thrown in for good measure).

We can acknowledge that “man’s wisdom is foolishness to God,” but these questions continue to plague us. Yet if God chose not to give us systematic answers, it strongly implies that the answers may be less important than we thought they were. It seems that the Lord wants us to live the questions.

More than that, however, what the Lord does is invite us on a journey of discovery with Him. What God is saying to us is this:

"I want you to enter a relationship with me and a journey of discovery. As you walk with Me you will learn all you need to know.. you will know "the truth" as you walk it out.

"It's not about what you learn intellectually. It's not about information but about formation.

"The curriculum is LIFE. I became flesh so that you might know Me. I give you My Spirit and call you to follow Me, and when your words become flesh you will know Me.

"There is no map...that would only enable you to do it without Me. But apart from you can do nothing. All you need to know is found in knowing Me, hearing Me, loving Me and walking forward holding my hand."

This begs the question of the relationship of the words of Scripture to revelation, or to truth. Are the New Testament words “true?” Is this the right question to ask, or is it loaded and misleading? It might be more accurate to say that the Scripture is a light to our path, and that it is given to us by God. This is what the NT says about itself. The New Testament words are a witness to truth, and truth must be discovered through them and in relationship to the One to whom the words witness.

This conclusion is inevitable if knowing God is about more than mere knowledge. We can read the Scripture, study the Scripture, and memorize the Scripture without any personal faith in Jesus, and without any personal relationship to God. As Watchman Nee put it,

“The Bible is what God has once spoken, that which the Holy Spirit has breathed upon once before. When the word of the Bible is released, some people will meet the Word of God while others may miss it completely. Yes, men can touch the physical part of the Bible without touching its spiritual counterpart.”

He continues later,

“Revelation means that God again breathes on His word when I read Romans two thousand years later in order that I may know it is the Word of God. Inspiration is given only once; revelation is given repeatedly. By revelation we mean that today God again breathes on His word, the Holy Spirit imparts light to me…”  Nee, The Ministry of God’s Word

The point of the Scripture is to know God, and the point of knowing God is relationship. God is known when He is revealed. Relationship with God in turn results in transformation as we walk with Him.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Now I’ve begun using a complex word without defining it. What does the New Testament mean when it uses the term “truth?”

Jesus says to us, "I am the way, the truth and the life." This statement must have driven the Greek philosophers nuts. But Jesus was not using "truth" in a modern philosophical sense.

Jesus is "the way," the way to the Father and to know God, and thus to know ourselves. It’s in discovering the center that all other things make sense. We are who we are only because He is who He is. He is the measure of all things, and in Him “all things hold together.”

Jesus is "the life," because He upholds creation and gives life to our mortal bodies. “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” To know Him is life.

As for "the truth..." From WG Kummel's Theology of the New testament:

For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I came into the world, to
bear witness to the truth." John 8.40.

“For John, Jesus is the truth itself.  This statement is understandable only when one realises that with "truth," John does not denote, in the Greek sense, the known reality behind things, but neither does he simply mean, in the Old Testament sense, that which is firm, valid.  Instead, he means God's reality:  "I have spoken to you the truth which I have heard from God" [8.40 cf 18.37]


”Hence in Jesus' prayer to the Father it is said: "Sanctify them through the truth; thy word is truth" [17.17] Therefore the statement that Jesus is "the truth", also means, to begin with, that He belongs to God. But then it says that above all that in Jesus God has become quite personally audible and that through the encounter with this truth that has appeared personally, salvation is to be imparted to men: " If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." [8.32]

A friend of mine wrote that to a Jew, this scripture speaks volumes.


"the way" -- the golden mana
"the truth" -- the law (stone tablets)
"the life" -- Aaron's budding rod

Metaphorically, this does come across as a deep statement, but even more so when taken literally in the Hebraic mind.  This man just called himself everything that makes up the content of the Ark if the Covenant; he is calling himself the very mercy seat of God.

When Jesus says “I am the truth,” he is saying that he is the fulfillment of the law.  The Hebrew idiom for coming "not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it" is saying that he came to properly interpret the scriptures/law, not to twist the law as the religious leaders of his day were doing. By focusing on the fine details of law they missed the heart of it, “justice and mercy.”

We know the truth when we know Jesus, and when we live from that center. Just as Jesus was the Word of God (John 1) incarnate by the Spirit, so when our words take flesh, we demonstrate that we know the truth.

William Law writes,

"As we must beware of neglecting the Word of God, so also we must beware of resting in the mere letter without expecting through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit a real and living experience of all that the Scripture holds out to our faith. The Bible should be reverenced as doing all that words can do to bring us to God – that is, to point the way. But the life-giving power of Christ does not reside in Greek or Hebrew syntax, but in the quickening of the Holy Spirit.”  Law. The Power of the Spirit.

Truth that is merely cognitive does not give life. When truth becomes troth and we enter a relationship (the old English word troth also meant covenant) then it is expressed in transformed lives. When our lives are transformed, we in turn become life givers. Jean Vanier comments,

The truth will set us free only if we let it penetrate our hearts and rend the veil that separates head from heart. It is important not only to join the head and the heart, but to love truth and to let is inspire our lives, our attitudes and our way of life.. and gives us respect and compassion for others.  Becoming Human, page 16

The Connection to Authority

But truth embodied has power, and this is the connection to authority. It is not merely the words of Scripture that have power in some magical sense, but the living and incarnate words of Scripture in life that have power and authority. Paul makes it clear that he does not want a faith response to his words alone, but to the acts that the Corinthians have witnessed and the truth that they have heard.

"I determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.

And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." 1 Cor. 2:2-5

If the words of Scripture witness to the truth that is in Christ, and if they have authority, then we continue to have an anchor which we can cast forward. A strict postmodern view cannot give authority to the Scripture over any other text, not can a strict postmodern view regard the text as a witness to a central reality. The view I am expressing here is essentially premodern.

I place my stake in this ground because of the historic witness of the church, its continuing (though fallen) expression, and my personal experience of the life and power of the resurrected Christ.

I believe there is a reality out there (ontology) and I believe it is knowable (epistemology), however imperfectly.

We can know God because He has given us power to do so. We know Him both by the witness of historic communities, the witness of living communities, and immediately (un-mediated internal knowledge) by the power of His Spirit.

"And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever-the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive…" John 14:16

"The Helper, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things…" Jn 14:26

"..He will testify of Me.. and you will also bear witness.." Jn 15:27

"He will glorify Me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you" Jn. 16:14

I testify to the truth of these things. I have heard God's voice in the night, I have been guided by dreams and by His voice, I have heard Him speak in His word, and I have seen the marks of His life on the lives of my friends and my family.

I accept the reliability of Scripture as a witness to the truth. I believe and I experience that the living God is knowable and accessible to our minds and our hearts. He lives and He makes Himself known..

Personal Knowledge

Personal knowledge is of a different kind than scientific knowledge. Personal knowledge has to do with intimacy, relationship and love.

Postmodern thinkers have rightly pointed out that we cannot know truth by reason alone. Knowledge of God comes by means of the word and the Spirit. There is, however, a parallel to this personal knowledge in our everyday experience.

I could write six pages on my wife.. or I could give you a picture along with a detailed physical and medical and psychological profile…but until you had met her and spent a few months with her, you wouldn't really know her. On the other hand, after sixteen years of daily living, I can't say that I know her perfectly. That is the nature of personal knowledge. God gives us His Spirit to indwell us so that we might know Him. As we reach out in love to God and to those around us, we acquire a knowledge that is beyond words or description.

Know not knowing there,
Burst the mind's barrier…
St. John of the Cross

"And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Jn 17:3

What is knowledge without love? It puffs up.
What is love without knowledge? It goes astray.

Bernard of Clairvaux, "In Cantica," Sm. 69, n.2

We were in trouble as soon as the Gospel entered the Greek world. We lost the Hebraic perspective on the unity of being and act and the wholeness of truth.

Moderns are obsessed with knowledge and information. Some of the results have been confessionalism, fundamentalism and many other "isms" that have distorted the Gospel. When truth became objective and propositional, we lost the connection with covenant and transformation. It became possible to identify with the facts of Christianity while not allowing those facts to transform our lives or connect us to the Christian community.

We are infatuated with knowledge, and we don't always ask questions about how our knowledge should change us and impact our world. We believe the myth of objectivity, and when we objectified our world we lost the concept of truth as troth, that knowledge involves personal commitment to the thing known.

In massive historical shifts, the very structure of knowing changes-not "what" we know, but "how" we know. Today, we are rethinking "thinking." More to the point, we are no longer "thinking"-in the usual sense of the word-but projecting a new world. Thomas Hohstadt, Dying to Live

The separation of sacred and secular led to the objectification of truth and thus the scientific revolution, and finally the technological revolution. While the benefits are countless, the long term impact on humanity and our world has been staggering.

Both knowledge and science became idols. We forgot that every definition excludes as much as it includes. We believed our own rhetoric that knowledge would give us ultimate power to shape our world. We forgot how that many of the foundational things that give meaning to our lives are delicate flowers: faith, hope, and love.

Furthermore, we lost our sense of mystery and wonder. We began to think that we could describe everything that was, and that what we could not describe wasn't important. In other words, we forgot who we were and how little we truly know.

Those who know don't have the words to tell;
Those with the words don't know too well..

Bruce Cockburn, "Cry of a Tiny Babe"

Remembering Who We Are

"We are only now emerging from a long ice age during which an undue emphasis was laid upon objective truth at the expense of subjective experience." A. W. Tozer

To "re-member" is to reconnect our experience with reality, and to "under-stand" is approach our task with humility. We do not stand above truth, but rather below it. We are human, contingent, and fallible.

The mystics have always called us to a larger perspective. It's interesting that just as Anselm was making his careful arguments on the nature of God and truth, Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St. Thierry were writing their treatises on love.

Anselm's dictum was, "I believe in order to understand" (credo ut intelligam).

Bernard's dictum was, "I believe in order to experience" (credo ut experiar).

Bernard would be well accepted in postmodern circles. Then again, even Calvin had more sense than moderns. It wasn't until after Calvin's time that the impact of the Enlightenment began to truly be felt in Christian thinking.

". . . for knowledge is not entitled to be called true, unless it produce such an effect on believers as to lead them to conform themselves to their Head. On the contrary, it is a vain imagination, when we look upon Christ, and the things which belong to Christ, as separate from ourselves. We may infer from this that, until a man has learned to yield to his brethren, he does not know if Christ be the Master. Since there is no man who performs his duty to his brethren in all respects, and since there are many who are careless and sluggish in brotherly offices, this shows us that we are still at a great distance from the full light of faith." John Calvin, Institutes, p. 824

According to a recent poll, 66 percent of Americans believe there is no such thing as absolute truth. Furthermore, 53 percent who identify themselves as "evangelical Christians" believe there are no absolutes.

Where moderns believed in objectivity, postmoderns do not. Postmoderns maintain that objectivity is a myth, and that the observer always becomes part of the equation. Experiments in the field of quantum physics, particularly with light, demonstrate that the result of the experiment depends on the questions we ask. The answer we come up with depends on our perspective.

For this and other reasons, postmoderns are not content with creedal statements. They want to experience the truth to which the creeds are confessions are pointing. They are hungry for reality.

Truth was always meant to embrace both "objective" and "subjective" by becoming incarnate in life. Truth was meant to be personal. Thus when Jesus said "I AM the way, the truth, and the life," He was giving us the heart of the Gospel. Is the couplet from Bruce Cockburn above so different from that found in St. John of the Cross?

This knowing that unknows
Has mastery so great,
Should any sage oppose
He'd blunder in debate,
Being no such advocate
as know, not knowing, there
burst the mind's barrier.

St. John of the Cross, "Deep Rapture"

Recovering the Mystics

While modern Christians have emphasized the objective nature of truth, we need to recover the learning of the mystics. We need to embrace the tension between the objective and subjective dimensions of faith. Paul's desire was that we become ministers of the new covenant, "Not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor.3:6). Evangelicals tend to be well anchored in the word, but not always so open to the Spirit.

Yet God loves to love on us. No marriage is complete which exists on paper alone. The Father draws us to a real and intimate relationship because loves moves toward union.

As in the lover the loved --
One in the other is so.
This love interfusing the two
may in equality go.
St. John of the Cross, "In Principio"

This turns out to be a biblical perspective.

When Adam and Eve came together sexually, the Hebrew text says "Adam knew his wife." Knowledge is ultimately personal, experiential, and intimate. It is not an intellectual cognition divorced from life. Furthermore, none of us is "saved" by mere facts. Our knowledge alone can delude us into thinking that we have obtained a certain condition. But it is Jesus who saves, not facts about Him.

What does it mean to "know" God? God is not known if He is not loved. Brennan Manning tells the story of a Hasidic rabbi, Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev in the Ukraine:

"[He] used to say that he discovered the meaning of love from a drunken peasant. Entering a tavern in the Polish countryside, he saw two peasants at a table, both gloriously in their cups. Each was protesting how much he loved the other, when Ivan said to Peter: "Peter, tell me what hurts me?" Bleary-eyed, Peter looked at Ivan: "How do I know what hurts you?" Ivan's response was swift: "If you don't know what hurts me, how can you say you love me?" "Lion and Lamb" p. 126

Love is personal, a dimension of knowledge that involves experience of the other.

It's nature is to move toward union. When Jesus tells us that "I and the Father are one," he is not merely stating a metaphysical proposition. He is telling us that they are intimate with one another, connected, and that life flows from one to the other. They share the same desires, feelings, and knowledge.

Thou dost demand our love, holy Lord Christ,
And batest nothing of thy modesty;
Thou know'st no other way to bliss the highest
Than loving thee, the loving, perfectly.
Thou lovest perfectly-- that is thy bliss:
We must love like thee, or our being miss--
So, to love perfectly, love perfect Love, love thee.

Here is my heart, O Christ, thou know'st I love thee.
But wretched is the thing I call my love.
O Love divine, rise up in me and move me--
I follow surely when thou first dost move.

To love the perfect love, is primal, mere
Necessity; and he who holds life dear,
Must love thee every hope and heart above.
George MacDonald - "Diary of an old Soul."

Ultimately the knowledge we proclaim is a metanarrative that lies beyond the claims of reason. As Stanley Grenz put it,

"We agree that in this world we will witness a struggle between competing narratives and interpretations of reality. But we add that while all interpretations are in some sense invalid, they cannot all be equally invalid. We believe that conflicting interpretations can be evaluated according to a criterion that in some sense transcends them all. Because the "word became flesh" in Jesus Christ…" A Primer on Postmodernism, p. 165

Truth in Community

While I believe that truth is best embodied in community, and I believe that truth in community has a fullness that an individual life cannot express (and isn't this part of what we mean by "the body of Christ?") I also believe that truth exists independently of a particular embodiment.

In other words, truth is bigger than community. If there was not a single faithful believing community on the planet, Jesus and the Cross would still stand at the center of reality, and would remain the only reliable foundation for community. Yet.. at the same time in our real physical and historical world words must take flesh in order to be understood. As Jim Wallis put it,

"The only way to propagate a message is to live it. That is why there can be no conversion without community. Community makes conversion historically visible." Call to Conversion

This is one of those both/and things.

If Scripture is a reliable witness to truth, and if we can personally know Christ by His Spirit, then we individually have a witness of truth even as we have a communal witness. Let me tell you a few stories to illustrate why I think this is important.

Every morning I go around the house making sure that the various thermostats are turned down, and closing bedroom doors upstairs. We have electrical heat so every room has its own control.

As I closed my daughter's bedroom door one morning I thought, "this is her private space." She is thirteen and now spends more time on her own.

I began thinking how we go from being communal beings (undifferentiated or primary narcissism) to individuals (differentiated) and then back to communal again (interdependent and connected). But unless a child individuates (Jung's term but also a Family Systems term) it is very difficult for them to enter into healthy relationships (community or marriage).

There is always this dance between separateness and togetherness, individuality and community. If you are married or living with others, you know what I am talking about.

Mystics like Kahlil Gibran have written poetry about this dance...

"Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
and let the winds of heaven dance between you…
And stand together,
Yet not too near together,
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

"The Prophet"

Jean Vanier speaks of this dance in terms of the need for aloneness and the need for togetherness.

As humans we crave belonging, we need the connected ness to others that brings security, but this connectedness can prevent the natural movement and evolution that we need in our lives. It can also get in the way of creativity and stifle the natural loneliness that pushes us to discover something new, that pushes us closer to God. This loneliness is the loneliness of the individual who steps out from the group, who takes a chance on what can be discovered and done outside of the norm.

So here is the paradox: as humans we are caught between competing drives, the drive to belong, to fit in and be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and the drive to let our deepest selves rise up, to walk alone, to refuse the accepted and the comfortable, and this can mean, at least for a time, the acceptance of anguish. It is in the group that we discover what we have in common. It is as individuals that we discover a personal relationship with God. We must find a way to balance our two opposing impulses. Becoming Human, p. 18-19

My personal process over the past five years has been interesting.. it has been a journey from one community to another, and then into a lonely place, and then a gradual growing into a new community, a kind of "coming home."

But if truth is an agreement made in community, how do we (individually) discriminate between communities? It shouldn't even be possible for us to do so. Furthermore, if truth is merely an agreement made in communities, then it has no reference point to meaning or reality outside the community. But I have been arguing here that in fact Scripture is a reliable witness to the truth that is in Christ and even to the question of "how then should we live?"

We are more accustomed to thinking about this issue as a boundaries question. From a psychological standpoint Robert Browning phrased it like this:

Now, who shall arbitrate?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive.
Ten, who in ears and eyes
Match me: we all surmise,
They this thing, and I that: whom shall my soul believe?
"Rabbi Ben Ezra"

We left one community after four years because while we shared a set of beliefs and values, the community failed to consistently practice those beliefs and values.

Through a series of dreams the Lord clearly directed us to move to another town. We then joined another community but there was still dissonance. The issues were different, but there was still disagreement between stated values and lived values. Furthermore, we observed that this new community distorted some of the biblical teachings in their own interest. After two years we left that community and founded a new one, and we continued to walk in relationship with friends whose discernment we trusted and whose transformed lives were a witness to the truth.

All this time we were directed, both inwardly by conviction and from the outside in by the hand of God. We are essentially rooted in a community (a story) that transcends our human experience of community, and we use that older story (a historical community, but relationship to a living Christ) to measure the communities around us. Of course, we also measure various communities by their ability to live by their stated values and beliefs. We were seeking a community that was faithfully living the gospel in a way that was connecting with culture.

We haven't walked this road perfectly. And we know that we don't see perfectly. We don't believe any of us will ever attain completely to the truth but all see "through a glass darkly." But we believe that the living God has revealed Himself, the Word became flesh and walked among us. And as you can see, we were bringing something to the community as much or more than the community brought something to us.

This dynamic between the individual and the collective is nothing new; it is also seen in the New Testament. Paul draws very clear lines on some issues, and seems to place himself both within a larger community, and outside it. He confronts cultural confusion (the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15) and also confronts moral confusion (in Corinth) and religious confusion (Galatians). So ultimately we need to learn this dance between the individual and the group.

A metaphor is helpful here. Scientists have found that a single radio telescope can reach far into the Universe and bring us information that would otherwise be inaccessible. But they have also found that a group of radio telescopes can reach ever further. And beyond a group, they can network telescopes over a wide geographic area for an even more complete picture at a greater distance in space and time.

In the same way, "in a multitude of counsellors there is safety." Or as Paul put it, "if all were an eye, where would the hearing be?"

We need one another, and while community is no guarantee that we walk in the truth (witness the Jonestowns of the age or the Nazi era), we can walk in greater truth in a loving community than we can walk in individually. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, "when our hearts deceive us our brother is greater than our hearts." We need one another, and individual vision is often like looking through a single lens at a 2d image. We need the stereoscopic perspective of twin lenses, so that we can see the whole picture in three dimensions.

Authority and Leadership

Authority is founded on two things: truth, and character. As to truth, listen to Karl Barth:

"Scripture is in the hands, but not in the power, of the church. The church is most faithful to its tradition, and realizes its unity with the church of every age, when, linked but not tied to its past, it today searches the Scriptures and orients its life by them as though this had to happen today for the first time." Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth.

As to character, as stated above truth that is merely cognitive does not give life. When truth becomes troth and we enter a committed relationship (the old English word troth also meant covenant) then it is expressed in transformed lives. When our lives are transformed, we in turn become life givers. Jean Vanier comments,

The truth will set us free only if we let it penetrate our hearts and rend the veil that separates head from heart. It is important not only to join the head and the heart, but to love truth and to let is inspire our lives, our attitudes and our way of life.. and gives us respect and compassion for others. Becoming Human, page 16

It has taken me quite some time to recognize the direct relationship of the personality cult to the leadership mess in the modern church. What do too many modern leaders lack, particularly in the charismatic circles? Moral authority. Moral authority can't be achieved by study. It isn't related to knowledge or position. It can only be attained by actual sacrifice and risk.

We have few leaders who are truly heroic, few who are willing to sacrifice for the sake of Christ. They have far too much at stake. They have been hard at work climbing the ladder of popularity and success. As Mark Strom pointed out in "Reframing Paul,"

"Paul would not allow any human system or convention to hedge the communities against the risks of working out what it meant to live by the dying and rising of Christ. Such security would only throw the community back on their own resources and reinforce individual and communal boasting....

"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 ekklesiai. 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.

"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.

"Ministry as profession feeds the pride that separates the seminary and the pulpit from the congregation. It makes Paul abstract."

But where truth abstracted is a lie, embodied truth has power, and this is the connection to authority and a new kind of leadership. I was stunned when I discovered this prophetic discussion from 1981 by Richard Quebedeaux. He wrote that,

"Because the very foundations of American society, including the family, are crumbling, we MUST seek and find strong leaders. But we need a new kind of leader-beyond the celebrity, beyond the pragmatist-to show us the way to the abundant life, the food life that God originally intended for his children and still longs for us to have..

"No medium or method of conveying the Christian gospel can meet people's basic needs for recognition, involvement, worthiness, growth, and indeed salvation itself without the loving give and take of person-to-person interaction over a long period of time. This is what community really means, and this is exactly where popular religion and its leaders are not successful.

"In a secular society, in a world where homelessness is the norm, the only way religion can really be "successful" is to provide a home for the homeless-a family that includes not must my kind of people, but God's kind of people, who love him with everything they have, and who love their neighbor as much as they love themselves. The church does need to become God's ideal family, both in word and indeed. And its leaders will have to be heroic leaders ho really live and exemplify the life they preach and teach, whose authority is recognized in their nobility, in their concrete modeling of the love of God, the only force that can save and transform a world plagued with the consequences of sin.

"At this point we can say that the crisis of authority in our culture is ultimately a crisis caused by the lack of love, both on the part of leaders themselves and on the part of their followers….

"Like loving parents, heroic leaders will have no happiness or peace until their followers, and the rest of humanity as well, also have the same. Thus such leaders never rest in the face of suffering and tragedy. When others suffer, they suffer…

"In a word, the strongest heroic leaders are themselves servants, nay, the very servants of the servants of God. It is in the nobility of this strength-in servanthood-that their authority is both recognized and authenticated. But more than that, the truth of their teaching and their example is borne out in their fruits, in the quality of the character of their followers.

"What America--and the rest of the world--needs, then, is godly leaders who by the discipline they impose on themselves and their followers, produce saints. If Christianity wishes to have a transformative impact on America--to speak with authority--its leaders will have to provide the one thing all modern Americans need most of all: a loving family and a home. And to do this it will have to have a new medium to bring the church home in a more substantial way than the electronic church has done… "

From By What Authority: the Rise of Personality Cults in American Christianity. HarperCollins, 1982. p. 177-183

I don't know quite how to end this article. It represents my convictions and experience today.

I have a feeling that I am more pre-modern than postmodern, and I also have a feeling that the important dialogue in the next few years will not occur between moderns and postmoderns, who are speaking from two different worlds, but between pre-moderns and postmoderns.



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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on March 16, 2003