The Good, The Bad And The Fuzzy: Friday Reflections On Assembly
The Friday program at Assembly was mostly filled with partner reports and workshops but peppered between and throughout these various presentations was a fair representation of all that is good, bad and fuzzy about our family of churches.
I quite enjoyed Brian Craig’s historical summary of Baptist pastoral ministry in central Canada. He said, “Valuing the Bible above all else and seeking personal conversion were primary emphases in the 18th and 19th century. Baptist Churches in 1814 began to realize the importance of standards for ordination and for holding pastors accountable to the Scriptures.”
I enjoyed his several illustrations of the “farmer/preachers” who in his words, “worked hard in the fields all week while diligently studying the Scriptures at night to prepare for Sunday preaching.”
Craig shared this historical summary as something of a lead in to the topic of theological education and the on-going effort of the denomination to provide clergy support and care. I think his basic point was that while we do a better job of educating pastors than we used to, the need to provide on-going care is higher than ever. The job is more complex, cultural change more disorienting and community support less automatic and therefore the need for organized care more urgent than ever. That’s a decent point to draw from the historical survey but it wasn’t the point my mind turned to. My brain began to wonder why the old emphasis on Scriptural authority and personal conversion had faded into the background and why so little encouragement has been given at the last several Assemblies for pastors to hit the books and be more diligent in their sermon preparation. I recall hearing one assembly speaker (2011) tell us that any pastor who spent more than 20 minutes a week preparing his sermon was wasting his time. Correct me if I am remembering that wrong, but regardless of the suggested time (20 minutes or was it less?) the message was pretty clear: churches grow by newfangled strategies not by the old fashion work of “studying to show thyself approved, a workman who needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth” as per 2 Timothy 2:15. A study was recently released by Lifeway indicating a direct correlation between the amount of time spent in sermon prep and the growth rate of local churches; to read that click here; so it might have been more interesting had Craig pursued that line of thought. Nevertheless, I am glad he said what he said.
I also enjoyed a great deal of what the folks who shared the CBM report had to say. Terry Smith reported on some of the good work being done in Nepal to bring relief to victims of the recent major earthquake. In reflecting upon his coming retirement as General Secretary Sam Chaisse remarked: “We believe that the Gospel is not just heard it is also seen, and it cannot just be seen, it must also be heard”. Amen. I’d love for the content of that necessary Gospel proclamation to be spelled out, but nevertheless, I am glad Sam said what he did.
While Sam and I have had several disagreements and differences over the course of his tenure, he was always willing to dialogue and he gave more straightforward answers than most. I respect the fact that he once flat out told me that we would not be able to determine the content of the leadership development program we were being asked to support financially. That took courage. To look a donor in the face and say that you are asking for funds but not input takes some chutzpa and I found myself liking him more after that, even if the project became a much harder sell to our leadership team. You can love a brother who tells you the truth, even if its not the truth you want to hear. Sam, you will be missed.
I find the way Scripture is handled at Assembly to be a great cause for concern. Not to be ornery but the most frequently cited version of Scripture at Assembly continues to be The Message – a translation so bad, so free, that to even call it a translation is an insult to Bible translators. It is a short and very biased commentary. Before you think that an overstatement, consider the text that Brian Craig led us through this morning for group devotions. This is Matthew 5:48 in The Message; as Craig read it to us:
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matthew 5:48, The Message)
This is Matthew 5:48 in a literal, word for word translation:
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48 ESV)
That’s barely recognizable as the same verse. Consider the level of interpretation required to get where the Message landed on this text. “Perfect” becomes a grown up, kingdom subject who lives generously and graciously towards others. That tells us a lot about what Eugene Peterson wants us to look like and a lot about what Brian Craig wants us to look like but it tells us absolutely nothing about what Jesus wants us to look like. The Greek word used for ‘perfect’, teleios, can mean ‘perfect’, ‘complete’ or ‘mature’ and only the context can tell us which is to be preferred. The context is the Sermon on the Mount which would include the Beatitudes and all of what is sometimes referred to as Christ’s Kingdom Manifesto. It’s a pretty deep text. Unpacking the word “perfect” therefore is a very delicate operation and will obviously involve a fair bit of interpretation. I have no problem with that provided that the interpretation is not included AS IF IT WERE THE TEXT ITSELF! The problem with Study Bibles, a wise old pastor used to tell me, is that people give as much authority to the words below the line as they do to the words above the line. Interpretation becomes text. That’s arrogant, that’s dangerous and that’s not “trembling before God’s Word.” (Isaiah 66:2)
Just as concerning to me was what followed this particular reading. Craig led us through an exercise of Lectio Divina. This has become very common in meetings facilitated by CBOQ staff. Tim McCoy once did this at the GBA Association Meeting in lieu of a sermon. We invited him to share from Scripture and he read a passage and then led us through the process of Lectio Divina. For those not familiar with the technique, Lectio Divina is a form of Catholic mysticism. Instead of opening the meaning of the text – as per the classic definition of textual preaching (EXPOSE-ITION), listeners are invited to ask what the text means TO THEM. What do you hear? What might God want to say to you? Let’s be clear, those aren’t bad questions if they are asked AFTER the actual, original meaning of the text has been made clear, but if you skip that step, which both McCoy and Craig did, then it becomes an invitation to mysticism and individualism. Consider this definition of Lectio Divina from Wikipedia (again, I’m away from my library, so you’ll have to put up with the internet sources!:))
“In Christianity, Lectio Divina (Latin for "Divine Reading") is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God's Word. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word. Traditionally, Lectio Divina has four separate steps: read; meditate; pray; contemplate. First a passage of Scripture is read, then its meaning is reflected upon. This is followed by prayer and contemplation on the Word of God. …The monastic practice of Lectio Divina was first established in the 6th century by Saint Benedict and was then formalized as a four-step process by the Carthusian monk Guigo II during the 12th century. In the 20th century, the constitution Dei verbum of the Second Vatican Council recommended Lectio Divina to the general public and its importance was affirmed by Pope Benedict XVI at the start of the 21st century.”
Evangelicals have generally steered well clear of this type of reading precisely because we believe that the text has an actual meaning, that meaning is derived from the words of the text and that while it also has an application, that application is properly derived from the exposed meaning of the passage.
I heard several people comment to me that this year’s Assembly continued the theme of “no Bible required”. When the Bible was read, it wasn’t really read (The Message doesn’t qualify for many folks) and when it was quoted there were often verses skipped (see Steve Bell from John 15) and the meaning was either intentionally or accidentally distorted. This remains a matter of grave concern. Our farmer/preacher forefathers would not have been amused.
There are always lots of things said at Assembly that I feel require further explanation. “What did he/she mean by that?” is by far and away my most frequent thought at Assembly. That thought was prompted by each of the following examples.
i. Stan Porter shared a variety of testimonies from McMaster graduates. One graduate is reported as having said: “Someone said to me once that the Bible says that a woman is not supposed to be a preacher but a professor at McMaster showed me why that isn’t so.” I would have liked that explained. I’m wondering what texts were explained so that the Bible now means something other than what it seems to mean. I think we would have all benefited from the longer version of that story.
ii. Matt Wilkinson told us that his group is committed to, “Doing whatever it takes to reach and disciple the next generation.” I almost said amen to that, after all I have 5 kids and I want them all to love Jesus, but then I wondered what was meant by “whatever it takes”. I would have liked that explained further.
iii. “Canadian Baptists have been at their best as innovators”, said Clint Mix, quoting Renfrew. Yes, unless you mean something I’m uncomfortable with, which I fear you might.
I leave Assembly today feeling much as I did last year. I feel encouraged by a lot of the love, charity, mercy and missiology that oozes out of our people. I love that we are committed to doing something about the problem of human trafficking, I love that we are committed to working together even though we are a very diverse tribe of people. I love that we are planting churches. I am praying right now for Pastor Roberto who is planting Immanuel City Church in Quebec. God grant him confidence in your Word and a deeper knowledge of your will in Jesus Christ. Bless his preaching of the Scriptures. Send your Spirit ahead to dig ears to hear, open eyes to see and soften hearts to receive the implanted and saving Word. In Jesus’ Name, amen.
I’m also deeply concerned about our eroding confidence in God’s Word and our serious undervaluing of expositional preaching. So little is said about that and what is said is said seemingly without any confidence that the Word of God will do the work of God in our day as it did in the days of our farmer/preacher forebears.
I’m also a little confused. We say a lot of things in a vague and obtuse manner almost as though we prefer not to be understood. We use shadowy words like “kingdom” and “shalom” and “Christ-walk” but I never seem to understand the content of those things. What does it mean to seek the kingdom of Shalom through our daily Christ walk? I want to say amen but I secretly suspect that I couldn’t if those words were actually explained. Perhaps I would agree but we’ll never know unless we begin to speak clearly enough and long enough to establish a common theological vocabulary. Until then, I fear the fuzzy will only grow and that it will be pulled up like a blanket over all of us while the smart people spend our money for Jesus.
I think we need more farmers who read their Bibles. We need more hard working folks to do like our forefathers did: work hard in the day and read their Bibles at night. We need regular folks who know what the Bible says and who believe what the Bible means. I think we’re not helped by smart people telling us how the Bible doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. I think we’re not helped by reading a smart guy’s interpretive translation of the Bible. I think we just need more Bible; word for word; straight up. We need some farmers and maybe some pitchforks (metaphorically speaking) to cut through the fog and to set our feet again on the solid rock of Scripture. When we do that, maybe we’ll understand each other. When we do that maybe we’ll find we agree on more than we thought and maybe we’ll find we can work together the way we used to do back in the old days.
Until then and until next year; yours in Christ,
Pastor Paul Carter