Archive for ‘Theology’

Alumni Spotlight- Nathan Pickard

0 Commentsby   |  12.14.17  |  ACU, Alumni, Church, Evangelism, Ministry, Mission, Professors, Students, Theology

Meet GST Alum, Nathan Pickard!

Nathan lives in Newmarket, Ontario with his wife Katie and two boys, Caleb and Eli. He enjoys spending his time playing hockey with the kids. He also has a love for the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. He received a Master of Divinity and a Doctorate of Ministry from ACU. Most recently, he wrote a small book called Praying for the Neighborhood and also contributed a chapter to the book called Along the Way which was edited by Ron Bruner and Dana Pemberton. He also writes for our GST Blog.


1) Where are you currently working & what is your role?

I am the minister at Newmarket Church of Christ (a small city 40 minutes north of Toronto). I have been serving this congregation for just over 13 years. 

2) Do you feel like the GST prepared you for your current role? If so, how?

GST prepared me by asking ecclesiological and missiological questions that no one asked me to answer before. They also helped develop my theology of church and mission. This training has allowed me to serve a congregation that is multi-cultural and also on the cutting edge of living within a very a post-Christendom culture.

Interacting with faculty on a regular basis also helped me develop a love for communities of faith. Seeing my professors love the church (when its easy to grow dissatisfied) has helped me become a minister who cares deeply about longevity with a congregation. GST also prepared me by being a place where I could develop friendships; friendships that help sustain my theological interests and work.

I remember eating breakfast with Dr. James Thompson one morning and asking him why there isn’t a lot of “text” classes. Thompson responded with words similar to, “It’s important to teach you how to read Scripture rather than specifically teach you certain texts. If you can learn how to read Scripture you can read the texts with your community of faith.” What Thompson said can easily be translated to other areas of study. GST helped me learn what it means to be a student of theology, ethnography, eccelesiology, etc., and because of this, GST has given me the tools to think deeply about the life of the church.

3) What is something you are currently most excited about in your ministry?

I’m excited about our work in the neighborhood. We have a community garden, summer camp, neighborhood meals, street BBQ’s. We’ve recently partnered with the Town so that a bike trail and a neighborhood parkette could be built as part of the Town’s development. I’m also really excited about conversations where we as a community of faith are exploring the development of a hospitality house where we will invite individuals to live inside the neighborhood and help connect church and neighborhood in deeper ways, while also building upon the work we’ve been engaged in over the years. This conversation is one of the most significant conversations we have undertaken. I look forward to continuing this conversation. (See Nathan’s blog about working in his neighborhood here

4) Tell us about a GST professor or two that inspired you. Feel free to use a story, or just explain why and how they impacted your life.

There were two professors that inspired me. First was Dr. Tim Sensing. I was Tim’s Graduate Assistant and so had to spend a lot of time with him. His stories of church and family, his quiet demeanor, steadfastness and friendship helped shaped me into who I am today. The second was Dr. Mark Love. It was Mark’s class on evangelism that helped me see the kingdom of God in new ways. It was also Mark who introduced me to the missio Dei and as a result, has shaped my eccelesiology and way of ministry.

Never. Stop. Seeking.

by   |  10.30.17  |  Christianity, College of Biblical Studies, Learning, Theology, vocation

Never. Stop. Seeking. 

When I was just 3 years old, my family was invited to the home of one of the members of the church for which my dad had recently started preaching. They lived in a grand old house with a seemingly endless maze of rooms, each filled with artwork and antiques. As our host gave us a tour, she would pause before various pieces and tell about how or when or where they had been acquired. Passing by an antique chair, she patted it and said, “Oh, there’s a story behind this chair.”

After dinner was finished and the adults were chatting over coffee, my mom looked up and realized that I had left the table. Worried that I might break something expensive in a house filled with priceless objects, she began moving from room to room, trying not to panic. She was less than pleased to discover me in one of the rooms that we had visited earlier, with a piece of priceless furniture overturned on the floor. She gaped at me and asked, exasperated, “What are you doing?!” To which I answered, matter-of-factly, “I’m looking for the story behind this chair.”

I sometimes wonder if hearing that story repeated throughout my childhood is the reason why one of my favorite songs, as a teenager, was “The Seeker” by The Who, the opening lyrics of which went as follows:

I’ve looked under chairs

I’ve looked under tables

I’ve tried to find the key

To fifty million fables

They call me The Seeker

I’ve been searching low and high

I won’t get to get what I’m after

Till the day I die

I’ve thought of myself as a seeker for as long as I can remember. I may not have always used that word, but I’ve always had an interest in getting to the bottom of things, in discovering the story behind them. I’ve always been taken with stories of seekers, particularly Biblical characters, and the theme of seeking runs throughout the Bible. The Psalms alone are filled with reminders to “seek the Lord.” The writer of Psalm 63 begins:

O God, you are my God,

earnestly I seek you,

   my soul thirsts for you;

my flesh faints for you

The New Testament, as well, has many references to seeking. Jesus famously challenges the hearers of the Sermon on the Mount to “seek first his kingdom.” The writer of Hebrews assures us that God “rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

One of the frustrating features of late-20th century evangelism was that churches began referring to those who were not yet Christians, or those in the initial stages of their Christian walk, as “seekers.” The problem wasn’t that these people weren’t seekers, but the implication that they would eventually reach a stage of development when they were no longer seekers. And, while that may not be the language used by 21st century churches, the idea behind it has held on. We think of seeking as something for curious agnostics and newborn Christians. Many long-term Christians have simply stopped seeking. Or, if we are seeking, we’ve limited our scope to the new and different. None of this same ol’, same ol’ style seeking.

Many ministers fall into this same trap. We finished our learning in school and now we’re simply seeking whatever is going to get people in the doors, filling seats, and writing checks. We’ve stopped digging into deeper understanding in our reading, our conversations, and the basic habits and practices that shape the Christian life.

And yet, it’s through these basic habits and practices that we are most likely to encounter Christ. Through prayer. Through meditation on Scripture. Through the sharing of songs and Communion with the people of God. Through service and hospitality and fellowship. Through study. These are the things that form us. This is how we draw near to God. This is how we come to know Christ.

One of the things I most appreciated as a student in our Graduate School of Theology, and continue to appreciate as an employee of the GST, is the consistent emphasis on being a community of learners and disciples, of teaching and modeling how to be seekers. The GST understands the importance of knowledge, but as something that leads to a deeper wisdom, that understands theology as “faith seeking understanding.”

When Jesus enters the temple in chapter 21 of Matthew’s Gospel, he begins turning over tables because he came looking for a house or prayer and found something else entirely. The question I find myself asking increasingly often is what Christ might find if he visited our “house of prayer”? What might he find if he just visited our houses? Might he not start turning our lives over and asking, “What’s the story here?”

It’s easy to lose sight of our story and to find ourselves caught up in a different one, one in which we’re the central character, rather than Christ. To remain true to our calling as followers of Christ and finding our identity in him takes honesty and humility, discipline and courage, a commitment to discerning the truth and keeping an open mind. The shared commitment of all Christians, whether standing in the pulpit or sitting in the pew, leading singing or working in the nursery, teaching Sunday school or planning a potluck, is that we must never stop seeking.

About the author: Kester Smith (’15) graduated with a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University’s Graduate School of Theology and is also currently pursuing a MA in Theology. Kester is the Director of Student Formation and Vocational Discernment for the College of Biblical Studies at ACU.

GST Author Highlight

by   |  10.09.17  |  ACU, Alumni, Bible, Church, College of Biblical Studies, Ministry, Professors, Theology

The Graduate School of Theology has many gifted authors who are using their talents to minister to the church & the world. Below are four books that have recently been published by either GST faculty or alumni. We hope they will be an inspiration to you.


Meditations for the Lone Traveler written by Mark Hamilton

“In writing this book, I wanted to speak to those who feel alone in their faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Faith is not purely intellectual, but comprehensive in its impact on life. In the pursuit of faith, we are not alone.”

These twenty-two meditations on the songs, prayers, and stories of the Bible invite readers to imagine themselves as part of a world in which human beings may fully live into their sufferings and joys as part of a vibrant while still critically searching faith in God. Here we see prophets and  poets, as well as ordinary men and women, embrace the realities of life without apology or fear. For more information, click here.


The Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology edited by Fred Aquino

This volume brings together leading scholars in the fields of theology and epistemology to examine and articulate what can be categorized as appropriate epistemic evaluation in theology. Part one focuses on some of the epistemic concepts that have been traditionally employed in theology, such as  knowledge of God, revelation and scripture, reason and faith, experience, and tradition. Part two concentrates on concepts that have received significant attention in contemporary epistemology and can be related to theology, such as understanding, wisdom, testimony, virtue, evidence, foundationalism, realism/antirealism, scepticism, and disagreement. Part three offers examples from key figures in the Christian tradition and investigates the relevant epistemological issues and insights in these writers, as well as recognizing the challenges of connecting insights from contemporary epistemology with the subject of theology proper, namely, God. Part four centers on five emerging areas that warrant further epistemological consideration: Liberation Theology, Continental Philosophy, modern Orthodox writers, Feminism, and Pentecostalism. Learn more here.


Among the Early Evangelicals written by James Gorman 

Among the Early Evangelicals charts a new path showing convincingly that the earliest leaders of this Movement cannot be understood apart from a robust evangelical and missionary culture that traces its roots back to the eighteenth century. Leaders, including such luminaries as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, borrowed freely from the outlook, strategies, and methodologies of this transatlantic culture. More than simple Christians with a unique message shaped by frontier democratization, the adherents in the Stone-Campbell Movement were active participants in a broadly networked, uniquely evangelical enterprise. Find more information here.


Pray Like You Breathe: Exploring the Practice of Breath Prayer written by Houston Heflin

Pray Like You Breathe: Exploring the Practice of Breath Prayer chronicles the history and practice of this unique spiritual discipline focusing primarily on the Psalms as a reservoir of language for prayer. The book can be used as a 28-day experience of prayer for individuals or it can also be used as curriculum for small groups and Bible classes. Purchase your own copy on Amazon here

The Carmichael-Walling Lectures-2017

by   |  10.09.17  |  Announcements, Church, Theology





The 2017 Carmichael-Walling Lectures will take place on Thursday, November 9. Our lecturer will be Dr. Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke University.“How Well Do They Know Each Other?”

Dr. Goodacre will speak on the relationship between John and the other New Testament Gospels. The first lecture, entitled John’s Dramatic Transformation of the Synoptics, deals with John’s knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels as revealed in the way he dramatizes their narratives. In John’s Christological Transformation of the Synoptics, Dr. Goodacre addresses the understated similarities in the Christology of the Synoptic Gospels and that of the Gospel of John. In short, they know one another better than some interpreters of the New Testament have allowed.

The Lectures will occur at 4:00 and 7:00 in room 114 of the Biblical Studies Building on the ACU campus. They are free and open to the public.




Summit Review 2017

by   |  10.06.17  |  ACU, Bible, Church, Ministry, Theology

ACU Summit 2017, “Ancient Scripture, Future Church: The Choices We Make and the God We Serve,”  focused on Deuteronomy, the ways this ancient text informs the future of the church and the choices we make as we strive to serve God. Approximately twenty eight GST faculty, staff, current students, and alumni spoke at this year’s Summit lecture series! People traveled from all over the world to attend the lectures and to a partake in many valuable conversations. Below are four all day tracks where GST faculty, staff, students or alumni spoke about throughout the week.


Ancient- Future Bible:

The Word of God is living and active, and it has been so for millennia. The rich heritage we have from our predecessors in the faith, from manuscripts to art and from reflection to action, can be a profound source of spiritual strength today. This track, hosted by Curt Niccum, empowers Christians to engage God and his creation in new ways by going back to the future. Those who spoke on this topic were Wendell Willis, Jeff Childers, Glenn Pemberton, David Kneip and Curt Niccum. Our speakers shed light on topic such as recovering the Words of Jesus, interpreting the text about Jonah and the war over women in the Word.

Congregational Leadership:

With today’s complexities of congregational leadership, church leaders must seek wisdom as they navigate the winds of change. This track, hosted by Eric Gentry, will explore healthy leadership practices, pastoral ministry, spiritual discernment, and future

imagination for congregational leaders. Speakers included Colin & Barry Packer, Kasey McCollum, Jovan Barrington and Chess Cavitt. Topics explored included congregational grief and loss, what the church’s purpose is in this new era and leadership models for God’s Mission.

Ministering in the Small Church:

Although there is no official number that makes a congregation “small” or “large,” there are definite and noticeable differences between the two.  Most books, lectures, conversations, etc. are geared toward larger congregations. This track, hosted by Shawn D. Johnson, is intended to provide encouragement, guidance, and lessons specifically for small (but equally important) churches and those who minister to them. Tim Sensing, Shawn D. Johnson, Wes Horn and Trent Tanaro spoke wisdom about this topic throughout the week. These speakers explored conversations about size and location in relations to Churches of Christ, ministry in small towns and finding treasure in the big but also small things.

Business and Mission:

Sometimes, the mission field looks like a foreign country. Other times, it looks like the world of business. Tuesday of Summit, Dodd Roberts will host an all-day track examining “Business and Mission,” a track that will hopefully provide inspiration for potential Christian business-owners and employees as well as encouragement for those already operating as Christians in the world of business. A variety of speakers came to speak about Business and Mission in our world, which included Walter Cunningham, Chi-Ming Chien, Jarrod Brown, Gary Ginter, Lauren McAfree, Jan Martinez, Julie Sullivan, Don Simmons, Jason Fisher, Bill Job, Courtney MIlls, Matthew Rohrs and Mats Tunehag. Topics these guests spoke on included things such as “Business and Missions Abroad”, “Advancing the Kingdom of God in the Marketplace” and “From Non-Profit to For Profit.”

Download MP3 files of all the lectures for free on itunes!

Discovering My Vocation: The Fanning of the Flames

by   |  09.05.17  |  ACU, Ancient Languages, Bible, CSART, College of Biblical Studies, Students, Theology

Recently I was browsing my TimeHop (which, for those who are blissfully unaware, is a cell phone app that mercilessly displays your unfiltered social media posts from today’s date in years past) when I came across a Tweet from four years ago that read something like this: “Is it weird that I’m actually really excited to learn Greek???” If I could talk to this four-years-in-the-past Ryne, I’d tell him that although it is quite weird for you to have shared such an arbitrary thought with the entire Internet, you will be delighted to know that your desire to learn Greek is not weird at all but will in fact be quite fruitful.

That naïve version of me couldn’t have really understood how rewarding the study of this ancient language would be. Indeed, only now in retrospect am I able to fathom the many doors that were opened to me through my study of Greek (and, eventually, other ancient languages) at ACU.

At the outset of my undergrad time at ACU I had only a vague sense of vocation. Something to do with the Bible, something to do with ministry. I was sure that the arc of my career would involve these two aspects, but I had no clearer direction than that.

The story of how my vocational understanding eventually crystallized is long and multifaceted, but for the purposes of this post, you only need to know the primary catalyst and the new ministerial yearning that it sparked within me. The catalyst was Greek; the yearning was for a ministry conducted not in a church building, but in a classroom.

The long and short of it was that I absolutely loved learning Greek. Before college, I had no particular interest in language learning, but Greek opened my eyes not only to a new skillset that I possessed, but also to new doorways through which to study the biblical text that I held so dear. My first taste of Greek was sort of like a baby’s first bite of chocolate cake at their first birthday party—I wasn’t quite sure what this new thing was, but I was absolutely sure that I wanted more.

Luckily for me, I happened to choose a university with a faculty that was uniquely and diversely equipped to give me more. Languages were a huge part of what brought me to the Graduate School of Theology for my master’s work. I had drank deeply from the well of Greek in undergrad and had dipped my toe in the waters of Hebrew, and the GST offered an opportunity for more of the same as well as an expansion of my linguistic horizons.

In my first year at the GST I got involved with CSART—The Center for the Study of Ancient Religious Texts. I’ve spoken above about the doors that language learning at ACU has opened for me, and this has been one of the biggest. In CSART, students (undergrad and grad) have the opportunity to partner with experts in textual scholarship in the study of primary biblical and early Christian texts. The project that I’m currently on, for example, is working with a seventh century monastic text called The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

studying ancient artifacts

Ryne examining books & artifacts at the Matthew Parker Library in Cambridge.

My involvement in this project, as well as in another one during my time in undergrad, opened two very tangible doors for my academic career: two summer trips to a conference in Oxford, England. The Logos Conference is hosted by the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative, with which CSART partners in its projects. Because of the generosity of the Green family (the owners of Hobby Lobby, who founded the Museum of the Bible and the Scholars initiative) as well as the work that CSART does, I was able to spend a couple of weeks each of the past two summers in Oxford with other students from all around the world listening to and learning from internationally renowned biblical scholars.

Those experiences in Oxford were especially formative for me, not just because of the academic interest they held for me but for the way they affirmed my sense of vocation. I’ve spent most of this post spotlighting the way language learning at ACU has opened doors for me, but now I want to turn briefly to that ministerial yearning I mentioned before. My affinity for ancient biblically related languages has not only been fruitful in scholarly opportunities, it has also instilled in me a deep appreciation and passion for the importance of these ancient languages in studying the Scriptures.

At those conferences in Oxford I was able to look around and see professional scholars engaged in an academic sort of ministry as well as many students like myself aspiring to do the same. My paradigm for ministry had been shifting and I was beginning to wonder if teaching the Bible and its languages in a higher education context could actually be considered ministry. For my whole life I had thought of ministry as something that was done in either a church building or a mission field, so this idea that it might also be done in a classroom was foreign and frankly a little difficult to wrap my head around. But it was in Oxford that I finally settled into this vision of ministry and fully accepted that my passion for the biblical text and its languages could and should be leveraged into a teaching ministry conducted in the classrooms of a university.

So now as I reflect back on that tweet from four years ago and I think about the excitement that preceded my first day of Greek class, I realize that that enthusiasm was pregnant with something much weightier than academic curiosity. It was dripping with divine purpose, and though I couldn’t see it yet, that purpose would dramatically reorient my world. It would open academic doors that I didn’t know existed, it would deepen my connection with the biblical text that I loved, and it would define the shape of my ministerial vocation.

I had a déjà vu experience a few days ago that helped put this all in perspective for me. As I walked into my last class of the week, I realized that it was next door to an old familiar room. I glanced inside at the handful of youthful faces—a few of which were fresh with the excitement of a new academic challenge. I recognized that look in their eyes. And I recognized the voice of the professor, introducing another batch of students to the wide world of New Testament Greek. I remembered fondly the first time I had sat in that room, excited for the challenge but naïve to the opportunity.

And then I walked through another door. With the voice of my first-year Greek professor still barely audible, I sat down in the midst of that old familiar anticipation. And with thankfulness for the way that spark of intrigue in Greek had been fanned into a full-fledged flame of passion for ancient languages, I pulled out my syllabus for Elementary Syriac. Another new door that will undoubtedly lead to more opportunities—academic, spiritual, and ministerial all.

Aquino on the Move

by   |  02.17.16  |  Theology

Aquino Gives a Lecture and Leads a Seminar at the University of St. Thomas (MN)

Dr. Frederick Aquino (Graduate School of Theology) gave a public lecture at the University of St. Thomas (MN; The lecture drew from his book, An Integrative Habit of Mind (Northern Illinois University Press), and focused on the relevance of John Henry Newman for tackling the question of what it means to pursue wisdom in an information age. It was co-sponsored by the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, College of Arts and Sciences, and the Aquinas Chair.

He also led a faculty seminar on spiritual perception. Dr. Mark Spencer and Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk (University of St. Thomas) co-organized an interdisciplinary faculty seminar funded by an external cluster grant from the Templeton Foundation via the University of Notre Dame. One outcome of the seminar will be a research project in which Dr. Aquino will co-direct (with Paul Gavrilyuk) an international Spiritual Senses Symposium and co-edit a related volume of essays under the working title, Sensing Things Divine: Toward a Constructive Account of Spiritual Perception.


Aquino Co-edits a book on Newman with Oxford University Press

 Dr. Frederick Aquino (Graduate School of Theology) published (with Dr. Benjamin King, The School of Theology, University of the South) Receptions of Newman (Oxford University Press, 2015; ). In this collection of essays, scholars from across the disciplines of theology, philosophy, education, and history examine the different ways in which John Henry Newman has been interpreted. Some of the essays attempt to rescue Newman from his opponents then and now. Others seek to save him from his rescuers, clearing away misinterpretations so that Newman’s works may be encountered afresh. All the essays show why Newman’s ideas about religion were so important in the past and continue to inform the present.

Dr. Michael Baur (Fordham University) organized a session on the book at the American Catholic Philosophical Association ( Dr. Aquino, along with two other contributors to the book (Dr. Benjamin King, University of the South, Dr. Mark McInroy, University of St. Thomas) made presentations, followed by a response (Brandon Dahm; Baylor University) and a time for answering questions. The session was a wonderful opportunity to put ACU (and the GST) in conversation with other schools, perspectives, and disciplines.


Aquino Co-directs an International Symposium

Dr. Frederick Aquino (Graduate School of Theology) and Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk (University of St. Thomas, MN) are currently co-directing the Spiritual Perception Project. The project builds on the historical groundwork provided in the collection of essays, The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity, ed. Paul Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). The second phase of the project will focus on contemporary (as well as some historical) models of spiritual perception, using the methods of analytic philosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of perception, phenomenology, and cognitive science.

As a part of the second phase, Aquino and Gavrilyuk recently convened a one-day international symposium on the Spiritual Perception in Atlanta, Georgia, a day before the official beginning of the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The Symposium participants hailed from four countries (Canada, Germany, UK, and the US) and fourteen universities (ACU, Boston College, Cambridge University, Concordia University of Edmonton, Fordham University, Fuller Theological Seminary, Saint Louis University, St. Olaf College, Southern Methodist University, University of California (Santa Barbara), University of Missouri–Columbia, University of Notre Dame, University of St. Thomas (MN), Universität Konstanz. The interdisciplinary breadth of the proposed project requires cooperation among scholars with competencies in different areas of philosophy, religion, and theology.

One outcome of the symposium will be a volume tentatively entitled, Sensing Things Divine: Towards a Constructive Account of Spiritual Perception

The following scholars have agreed to contribute to the volume: William Abraham (Southern Methodist University), Frederick Aquino (ACU), Sarah Coakley (Cambridge University), Boyd Taylor Coolman (Boston College), Paul Gavrilyuk (University of St. Thomas, MN), John Greco (Saint Louis University), Mark McInroy (University of St. Thomas, MN), Michael J. McClymond (Saint Louis University), Paul Moser (Loyola University, Chicago), Catherine Pickstock (Cambridge University), Michael Rea (University of Notre Dame), Mark Spencer (University of St. Thomas), Mark Wynn (University of Leeds), and Sameer Yadav (Indiana Wesleyan University).

A Brief History of Practical Theology

by   |  07.24.13  |  Ministry, Theology

Many historians ironically look to Fredrick Schleiermacher (1768–1834) as the father of modern practical theology and also the initiator of its demise as a discipline. Schleiermacher’s proposal is often summarized by the metaphor of a tree. The roots of the tree represent philosophical theology; the trunk, historical theology; and the crown, practical theology.
     Practical theology served the clergy as a means by which the faith community might preserve its integrity and supply normative rules for carrying out the tasks of Christian ministry. Additionally, practical theology assessed the activities, procedures, and operations of the church’s ministry. Finally, practical theology provided the theory related to the praxis of the church’s leadership and conducive to the health of the faith community. Schleiermacher understood practical theology to be the theoretical undertaking of the tasks involved more so than the specific actions necessary to carry out those functions. He wanted to increase theological formation more than skills. For Schleiermacher, practical theology is not a cluster of proficiency courses or whatever is trendy in the churches, but an analysis of theological activity in the church in order to increase Christian faithfulness. His call was for greater accountability, not to skills, but to a theology of faithfulness of practice.
     Yet, in the immediate years following Schleiermacher’s proposal, a split occurred between theory and practice yet again. Theology became a science that moved towards specialization of the discrete parts. Practical theology became the outworking rather than the source of theological understanding of practice. Much of the dissension was due to practical theology being too narrowly defined by the church of his day delimiting the subject to preaching the word and administering the sacraments. Through continued evolution, practical theology became divorced from the new movements of systematics and biblical studies.
     The fault of the division does not rest in one camp or the other. Both share culpability. Practical theology did not develop into its own domain. It turned to the domains of social science for a source of knowledge. Practical theology allowed the social sciences to form rather than inform theology, thus increasing the study and acquisition of techniques. Homiletics turned to communication theory; Poimenics to psychology; catechetics to education theory, and so forth. The resulting split occurred between the domain of the professor and the domain of the clergy. Over time, the separation between theory and practice hardened because the huge increase in knowledge related to skills increased exponentially and no one person could claim expertise.
     As the nineteenth century unfolded, a single core identity that connected church practice with Christianity (as defined by Schleiermacher) no longer provided unity for practical theology as a field of study. The ascertaining of how the nature of Christianity itself sets forth requirements, principles, and rules that preside over the church’s activities was lost. Practical theology broke apart into subdisciplines representing the discrete tasks of ministry.
Practical Theology = Five Traditional Subdisciplines
  1. Catechetics
  2. Homiletics
  3. Liturgics
  4. Poimenics (pastoral care and counseling)
  5. Jurisprudence (leadership)
+ Four Additional Fields
  1. Halieutics (missions and evangelism)
  2. Mystical Theology (spiritual formation and spirituality)
  3. Congregational Studies
  4. Works of Charity (ministries of justice and mercy or social ethics).
     And at various times and in diverse ways, each of these subdisciplines lost their way in their reliance upon assorted and related social sciences. In the most recent past, practical theology became a synonym for pastoral theology or more precisely, pastoral care and counseling. The only choice for a doctoral student was to pursue a degree in one of the discrete subdisciplines. But even then, seminaries would often hire as professors to teach in these fields someone with a correlative degree in the social sciences. If a doctoral student wanted to concentrate on a holistic understanding of practical theology, the only degree possible was pastoral care. While some schools advertised leadership as the key component in their curriculum, the control of the social sciences in leadership studies exemplified [in my opinion] the worst-case scenario.
     However, in the past few decades, the recovery of a holistic understanding of practical theology has returned to the seminary, literature, and by extension, the church.  Practical theology is now a term that defines the aggregate of separate disciplines, each one with its specialists and auxiliary sciences. Currently, practical theology is informed by the social sciences but resists being formed by those disciplines. The organizing principles needed for integration among the collective subdisciplines revolve around theological core identity and method. While diverse interpretations and proposals are prevalent and healthy, it behooves faculties, students, and ministers to seek clear and concise articulations of their specific theological methods and core identities.
–For a more detailed account, see Tim Sensing, “Introduction,” in The Effective Practice of Ministry: Essays in Honor of Charles Siburt, ACU Press, 2013.

How Religious is God? Not Very! The Psalms in Our Worship 41

by   |  11.15.11  |  Bible, Prayer, Theology

With this post, we reach a point 1/3 of the way through the Psalter.  And a lovely point it is.

Psalm 50 raises a question previously unasked in the Psalter, at least in precisely this way: what does God want from human beings?  If we remember that ancient people saw gift-giving as a way of building a relationship, with the giving of lavish gifts creating a sort of dependency or relational asymmetry, then we recognize that the question is not an idle one.  To give a gift to God is to have a relationship with God, at least as the Bible understands it.  So what sort of gift is appropriate?

The psalm considers the question from several angles.  Verses 1-6 open with a description of “El Elohim Yahweh” descending from heaven to earth in splendor.  The very heavens declare the deity’s majestic righteousness and surpassing qualities as the judge of all the earth (v. 6).   Thus the God with whom the psalmist seeks a relationship is the same God who brings justice to the world, surely a magnificent gift.

Next, verses 7-15 offer a divine oracle in which this God declines sacrifice as an appropriate gift because He owns all the creatures in the world (you can’t give something to the one who already owns it!) and because a deity does not need to eat flesh and drink blood in any case.  (Thus the psalm rejects a simplistic view of sacrifice that sees it as an act of feeding the deity.)  This section puts the relationship on a different footing than one of strict reciprocity: “Thanksgiving is a sacrifice to Elohim, and keeping your promises is a peace offering to the Most High.  ‘Call on me in a day of trouble; I will rescue you and you will honor me’.”  Weaving together oracle (v. 15) and comment on divine oracle (v. 14), the psalmist recasts the whole question.  God’s job is to save the contrite in heart, and our job is to be grateful.  Barbecue is secondary.  Let me come back to this point in a moment.

The psalm next moves to a criticism of the evildoer, i.e., the one who does not have a relationship with God.  Verses 16-21 describe people who say the right things — they look pious and obedient — but do not say the main thing.  They are people who do not truly practice the disciplines of wisdom (verse 17’s word musar, a favorite word in Proverbs to describe the life lived wisely).  Their greatest mistake lies in assuming that God is like them, just a wearer of masks and not a person of integrity.  They were mistaken, and fatally so.

The psalm ends with a summary of its position: live a grateful life.  “The one sacrificing thanksgiving honors me; he will make the way where I will show him God’s salvation.”  (The Hebrew text is actually a bit defective, but this seems to be the sense of it.)  The gift that will create a meaningful, positive, beneficial relationship with God is one rooted in human gratitude, and thus in human awareness of the truth of our dependency on God.

Now, to return to an earlier point, what does the psalmist think about sacrifice?  There is no reason to believe that he or she objected to sacrifice as such.  That position would have to wait for later generations.  But the psalm does lay the groundwork for the later Jewish realization that sacrifice was only a form of prayer (a very pleasant smelling one!), and that prayer itself was not a way of bribing God or creating obligation, but rather a way of cementing a relationship.  So the barbecue is not, strictly speaking, necessary.  A life — actions — based on a thankful heart is the key.  And it still is.

This, too, shall pass: The Psalms in our Worship 40

by   |  10.25.11  |  Hope, Justice, Theology

Sometimes, you read something that you know is true, but it puzzles you anyway.  An example comes in Psalm 49, a wisdom reflection that calls itself a mashal or proverb.  Notice the line in verse 16 (Hebrew 17): “Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when glory/splendor grows in his house.”  Why would anyone be afraid of such a thing?  It’s easier to understand the poem’s final observation that wealth is no substitute for understanding or wisdom.  But still, why be afraid?

Perhaps the text’s anxiety reflects a specific historical setting, for in a precapitalist society, growing affluence in a given family often came through illicit means (political corruption, for example).  And the new economic differentiation could mean that the local village’s carefully balanced social relationships unraveled.

But maybe something deeper is at stake as well.  There is something to fear in the acquisition of wealth.  Most wealthy believers — those who are thoughtful and self-reflective anyway — I know will tell you that they had to work hard to keep their own friends, to pass on sane values to their children, and to make sure that they weren’t being used by overly deferential people or that they used others who respected their wealth too much.  It’s a problem.  Maybe fear is sometimes appropriate.

What replaces fear in the world of this text is neither envy nor revolution but a new orientation to life: a new confidence in God’s ability to rescue us from the power of death, in whatever form it takes.  One of the ways God does that is by allowing to see through the structures and pretensions of the world in which wealth, status, and power take precedence over virtue.  Knowing that God works in such a way offers the psalmist a door to another way of life.  It’s a door worth entering.


Whose Marriage Is It Anyway? The Psalms in Our Worship 36

by   |  08.12.11  |  Bible, Gratitude, Psalms, Theology

Psalm 45 is one of those texts that means different things to different readers.  It seems to have begun its life as an epithalamium, a poem for a wedding between an Israelite king and a foreign queen.  Later readers connected it to Jesus, not just because they connected most things to Jesus, but because of the psalm’s statement, “your throne O Elohim is forever and ever.”  Whatever the later associations are, and they deserve their own treatment and consideration, the first reading is the one I’ll reflect on at the moment.

First, a digression.  All of us know two things about marriage.  The first is that it can be beautiful as two people come together, based on shared values and commitments and not just emotional attraction, and many of us have experienced that blessing.  The second is that marriage is difficult, not because we expect too little of it but we because we expect too much.  Or rather, we expect too little and too much at the same time.  We expect our spouse to offer us happiness, physical satisfaction, avoidance of mortality, and continuous ego-stroking.  In short, we expect the other person to complete us, not a very realistic or healthy view.  At the same time, we often do not demand of ourselves the same vigorous commitments, the same sacrificial love, or the same investment in personal growth that we expect of our spouse.  From this paradox — too much and too little — comes the marital turmoil all too familiar to our times.  And when we combine the desire for the beautiful with the hard reality of what it takes to get the beautiful, we end up with challenges.

But of course marriage has always been challenging, even in ancient times when love was supposed to be the byproduct rather than the precondition of the union.  (Ancient Israelites would’ve found the Bachelor and Bachelorette tv shows as incomprehensible as some of us do!)  This is where at least one thing in Psalm 45 could help us.

Of course, much of this psalm is difficult to translate to our experience, not merely because of its antiquity, but mostly because it concerns marriage between a king and a queen and therefore all the political aspects of that relationship.  The needs to provide an heir to the throne and to bring about peace with foreign neighbors weigh heavily in this psalm, strongly influencing its language about each marital partner and their new roles.

But there is one thing that might help us.  Notice verses 13-15  (Hebrew 14-16): “How splendid is the king’s daughter [i.e., the bride] inside, decked with golden robes… with rejoicing and celebration they are led along; they come to the king’s palace.”  There is a joy here, a sense that something important is happening in this marriage, and it is not just about politics or the pragmatics of royal life.  There is a sense of wonder here at the beauty of human beings entering into marriage.

Perhaps the sense of wonder is what is lacking from marriages when they’re in trouble.  Isn’t it an extraordinary thing to know that I can have a lifelong relationship with my spouse (my wife, in this case!) through good times and bad, through triumphs and tragedies, and even through the ordinariness of much of life?  Isn’t it amazing that the initial euphoria can give way to far deeper and more beautiful emotions, attitudes, beliefs, and actions?  Maybe if we learn that much from this psalm, that would be enough.  More than enough.  As the psalmist says in opening this song, “My heart overflows with a good word.”  There is none better.

Reputations and Memories: The Psalms in Our Worship 35

by   |  08.01.11  |  Bible, God with us, Mission, Psalms, Theology

After a bit of a break, this post marks a return to the Psalms.  Welcome back!

Reputation.  The legend is that at his trial for cheating in baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson was accosted by a young fan who said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Say it ain’t so.”  Legend or not, the saying has stuck because  we all want to believe the best about our heroes, and we never want them to disappoint us.  Their failures are our failures at some level, if for no other reason than that we believed in them.

Psalm 44 is a “say it ain’t so” kind of psalm.  It opens with an address to God speaking of how the ancestors had spoken of the deity’s mighty saving deeds in the past (notably the exodus and the settlement in the land.  The opening address also claims that Israel has been faithful, a fact that should motivate God to be faithful to them.

Then comes the big shift.  In verse 9 (Hebrew v. 10), the accusations begin.  God, says, the psalmist has abandoned Israel to its enemies, making them like “a flock for devouring” and “people sold for no price.” Israel’s fate has become the stuff of foreign proverbs (v. 14 [Hebrew 15]).  The psalmist summarizes the horror and confusing nature of the people’s fate by saying, “All this has befallen us, yet we have not abandoned you, nor have we betrayed your covenant” (v. 17 [18 Hebrew]).  Such a fate would be understandable if the people had abandoned God, yet they have not.  Say it ain’t so!

What do we make of such a psalm?  It is not unique in its frank criticism of the Almighty (see, for example, Ps 89).  The refusal to admit guilt or to pretend away the horrors of the present are at once intimidating and refreshing.  Intimidating because the sort of gall — if it is — required to say such a thing seems unusual, and refreshing for the same reason.  Few of us ever rise to such a level of honesty in our expressions of outrage, pain, and confusion.

Now, for those who believe that we must always spin our feelings when bringing them to God, such a psalm seems to present a serious problem.  For some readers, it seems arrogant or downright disrespectful.  Yet here it is in the Bible, a book not known for valuing such qualities.  So perhaps we should reconsider what we think proper speech to God is.  The claim of the psalm is that Israel has not deserved its fate, and that the suffering it experiences constitutes a violation of the covenant with Yahweh.  God, says the Psalmist, has not kept His side of the bargain.  A serious charge, if true.

Still, it is important to note how the psalm ends.  It does not end with a repudiation of the covenant or a denial of God.  Rather, it invites God to “arise and save us, and rescue us for the sake of your steadfast love.”   Be who your reputation says you are, in other words.  Save because you are the savior.  The psalmist’s lack of confidence in God gives way to a higher confidence borne of waiting and wrestling.  Yet the new confidence comes from a relationship with God that includes the sort of absolute candor that the psalm displays.

The story is that Shoeless Joe answered the boy, “Yeah, kid, I’m afraid it is.”  And so a hero drifted away.  The psalmist gives his or her hero one more chance.  Sometimes we need to as well, for God’s sake and our own.


Longing for the Presence of God: The Psalms in our Worship 34

by   |  06.20.11  |  Bible, Hope, Prayer, Theology

Longing for the absent lover — this is the stuff of romance.  Memories of the smells and sounds of the lost relationship, memories of times shared together, memories of the last moment of touch all cascade through the mind of the one who longs for the return of the one who has gone away.  Longing for the absent lover also describes the life of faith, for the elusive God whose presence brings life seems distant and yet ever present.  Out of the tension created by this absence that is not absence comes something we call faith.

It is fitting, then, that the second book of the Psalter opens with  Psalms 42-43, once a single poem only later split apart.  Unlike many laments, which concentrate on either physical or social suffering, this one concentrates upon the source of suffering, the absence of God.  Thus it opens with the arresting image of the thirsty deer anxiously searching for water, and closes (43:5) with an address to the very life force of the psalmist: “why are you prostrate, O my soul, and why are you troubled upon me?  Trust Elohim, for I will yet praise him.  Deliverance (comes from) my ‘Face’ and my God.”  (“Face” is sometimes a name for God, or more often, for an aspect or manifestation of God, so I am offering here a very literal translation of the Hebrew text.)  These verses bracket the lament material between them, thus moving the reader from an expression of desire to one of confidence in the Almighty.

The core of the psalm works by setting up a series of contrasts: times of celebration versus times of disquiet and anxiety, drought-stricken land versus gushing springs, and mourning for God’s absence versus hope in God’s imminent presence.  The spiritual dryness and isolation characterizing life without God elicit metaphors of ecological dryness and social isolation, a nice poetic turn.  More to the point, the refrain that recurs in 42:6 and 12 (5 and 11 in English) as well as 43:5 works to undermine, or perhaps to place in its proper perspective, the expressions of isolation and despair.

Finally, it’s not very surprising that the opening of this psalm should have been set to music in our own times (my church frequently sings at least two different tunes set to it).  Our age senses keenly the absence of God.  Choked by war, fenced in by economic insecurity, despairing before ecological degradation and leaders’ denial of the plain facts, we all sense the absence of the transcendent One.  This psalm, therefore, does not belong merely to a past age.  It belongs to us, as well.  For just as the psalm details lost confidence in ancient verities, so also it sings about a God who transcends all the truths about God and has a life beyond our ideas, no matter how cherished.  The psalmist longs for God to be God so that we all can be human beings.  I’d like to join the ancient poet in this timeless desire.  Perhaps you would too.

Of Cabbages and Kings: The Psalms in Our Worship 32

by   |  05.31.11  |  Behavior, Bible, Prayer, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

It’s interesting how things converge in your brain.  Impressions, ideas, and reflections on both stream through seeking to stick together before something else roots them out.   Yesterday, I spent time working on a survey instrument for David Miller of Princeton University, who is a leader of the “faith at work” movement, an attempt to help men and women have more integrated lives.  See his website at

Then comes today’s self-appointed assignment, to reflect on Psalm 40,  a thanksgiving hymn praising God for an integrated life.  What have these two assignments in common?  A lot, as it turns out.

The psalm has two basic parts: verses 1-11 (Hebrew 2-12) are a straightforward hymn of thanksgiving expressing trust and hope in God, and verses 12-17 (Hebrew 13-18) step backward to the time before God’s salvation and thus offer a retrospective petition, a flashback so to speak.  Yet the two parts connect closely to each other, because salvation is never far away from the one seeking it from God, and the memory of trouble is never far away even from the most secure of us.  Life, after all, hits us in this great stream of impressions, ideas, and reflections on both.

How, according to this psalm, does one praise God rightly?  One way to answer the question is to track the verbs used for the psalmist and for God.  The psalmist trusts, stands in awe, and invites others to do the same.  God, meanwhile, turns to the pray-er, listens, lifts out of the clay pit, sets feet on firm ground, and puts a new song (the psalm itself!) in one’s mouth.  The active God makes it possible for the formerly passive, overborne human to become active again and to resume a communal role.

Another way to track the pursuit of integration is to follow the structure of the psalm, which seems loose at first, but proves to be comprehensive in scope.  The thanksgiving turns in verse 4 (Hebrew 5) to benediction: “blessed is anybody whose refuge/place of trust is Yhwh.”  It then moves back to direct address to God, praising the Almighty for doing miracles (nifla’ot are often associated with the events of the exodus, though the concept is wider — the term means less suspension of the laws of nature, than simply actions that reorder the human world so that the righteous prosper as they should).  The psalmist then considers, and rejects or at least relativizes, an alternative form of praise, namely, sacrifice.  Yhwh does not need sacrifice.  Words are enough when they bear fruit in life.  Words and deeds, divine and human, all fit together somehow.

Among the most interesting lines are those in verses 7-8 (Hebrew 8-9): “Then I said, ‘Indeed I have come.  In the book it is written about me to do what pleases you, O God.  This is what I delight in.  So your law is in my inner being’.”  The lining out of the verses is a bit unclear, or rather, debatable, here, but you get the drift.  Many commentators associate the scroll in which the psalmist reads with the one written for the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, and thus argue that the psalm as a whole is a royal psalm.  This thesis is possible, though far from certain.  It seems also possible to think of the psalm as fairly late and thus as a specimen of a type of piety that emphasized the importance of the Law of Moses.  There is nothing obviously kingly about the psalmist (in contrast to the case with a number of other psalms), though we cannot rule out the possibility that we are supposed to imagine here a king delivered from national trials.

However you slice it, the ideal narrator of the psalm is someone who has experienced tragedy and deliverance and is now grateful for it.  He (or she) has found an integrated life rather than one divided up into little pockets in which faith has no bearing on anything else or vice versa.

In times of stress such as ours, we need this psalm.  Whatever my objective experience, it is easy to find life’s problems, to highlight disappointments, and to underscore tragedies.    But this little poem describes someone who found another way by the simple expedient of trusting God and seeking guidance from Torah.  What a concept!  It is this extraordinary willingness to make a commitment that marks the person of faith off from the rest of the human race.  Without such trust, we have no hope.  With it, many things are possible.

Why God Loves the Penitent: The Psalms in our Worship 30

by   |  05.11.11  |  Bible, Identity, Theology

Repentance — such an old-fashioned, churchy word, so reminiscent of unctuous preaching and Elmer Gantry hucksters.  Or so some of us think.  Yet, even if the word has fallen on hard times, the idea of change, of renouncing bad habits and poor commitments, of rethinking what we love still makes sense to most of us, and rightly so.  Few people outside the confines of the world’s privileged elites of power, wealth, and celebrity are so convinced of their own perfection as not to acknowledge the need for repentance now and then.

Psalm 38, one of the Psalter’s penitential psalms, lays out both the need for repentance and the steps such an action requires.  As in most laments, the poem expresses the suffering of the poet (and all subsequent singers of the song) in terms of bodily pain and decay (verses 1-14 sound like a hypochondriac’s dream world, though in this case, the description is true), and in terms of social isolation (verse 11’s [12 in Hebrew] “those loving me and my neighbors stand before/apart from my affliction; those formerly near me stand way back”).

Unlike most lamenters, however, the psalmist takes responsibility for sin, as in verse 18’s “for I recount my inquity and have remorse for my sin.”  At the same time, this psalmist does not cower before a distant God who remorselessly punishes sin.  Rather, the psalmist associates God with his or her suffering, not only by pointing out to God that the arrows of the Almighty have already brought enough pain to get the sinner’s attention, but also by commenting on the performance of the psalm itself, describing it as a way of reaching out to God.  So verse 9 [Hebrew 10] says, “O Lord, before you is all my desire, and my sighing is not obscured from you.”  The psalmist has done all he or she can do and now awaits salvation.

Hence the poem’s conclusion: “Do not abandon me, O Yhwh my God.  Do not be far away from me.  Hurry to my rescue, O my saving lord.”  For the psalmist, the most devastating consequence of sin is its isolation from God, its capacity to shatter hope in a meaningful and orderly world, and thus its capacity for utterly crushing the soul of the sinner.  Other texts, of course, talk about other consequences.  But here the radical individualism of repentance comes to the fore.  I, and not someone else, am a sinner.  I must change.  I must find my way back to a merciful God.  Individuality is both a blessing and a curse.  The naked “I” is most manifest as a consequence of sin; the aloneness of the individual is the result of our capacity for evil, not the highest good.  And yet I cannot shift responsibility from myself to another, for in doing so I erase myself and lose all opportunity to be part of a relationship with others.

But then again, repentance in this text and in general rests on a key assumption about the nature of the human being and thus of God.  That assumption is that God desires human beings to change, grow, mature, and live according to justice.  Repentance is not a futile begging for mercy, nor is it a way of appeasing an otherwise stubbornly hard-nosed God.  Repentance is not a way of crushing human independence, as the Romantics of the modern and postmodern period often understand it (see, for example, Shelley’s poem “Prometheus Unbound,” and in some ways Aeschylus’s ancient original, “Prometheus Bound”).  Repentance is a way of keeping us from crushing ourselves.  It is an act of turning back to the course of goodness and life, for our own sakes.  Repentance matches our deepest desires with our outward actions.  And as such, it is a gift of mercy we give ourselves.

This week, there are some things I need to repent of.  Maybe it’s the same for you.  And next week, there will be more.  Let us have the courage to receive forgiveness and healing through the honest discipline of repentance.

Do We Ever Really Move? A Book Review

by   |  05.03.11  |  Christianity, Church History, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Review of Susan Campbell, Dating Jesus (Boston: Beacon, 2009).  By Mark Hamilton at the 2010 Christian Scholars Conference, Lipscomb University

On picking up this book, I frankly expected to hate it.  What could be more clichéd than a story of a self-conscious young person growing up in a suffocating, oppressive conservative religious group and then coming of age (read: becoming secular and successful back east)?  Such memoirs have become a sort of rite of passage, a passport to the guild of the literati, and whatever artistic merit or intellectual bite they may once have had has long since sunk into the swamp of the smugness and overweening ignorance of what passes for our culture’s post-Christian elites.  Had my fears come true, my own pitiable role as reviewer would then be either to defend practices and beliefs I have worked my adult life to correct or at least temper, or I would have had to join in the flagellation of the unwashed – or, in this case, fully immersed but still unenlightened – an even more contemptible form of life to which the odious word quisling might well apply.

Fortunately for me, and for you, Susan Campbell’s book is not exactly what I expected.  It is better than that.  She speaks honestly of the struggles of her childhood growing up in churches of Christ (small c, big c) in Missouri, her incipient feminism that could not see why a loving God would silence half the human race in God’s own house, her struggles with family and with the vagaries of what she calls, with a refreshing refusal to be apologetic, hillbilly culture.  Though sometimes meandering and repetitive, this memoir of a life tells well the story of a woman who loves Jesus but is mighty uncomfortable with some of his followers.

Any reviewer must ask why he or she should review another person’s work.  I can only assume that my assignment does not derive solely from my having been raised on the other side of the Boston Mountains as Ms. Campbell or having been, like her, a Bible bowl champion at Green Valley Bible Camp (where, by the way, I was baptized in June, 1977 at the age of 12), or my also having been bitten by a German shepherd while door knocking (I was door knocking, not the German shepherd).  I can only assume that my role is to represent those who experienced many of the intramural debates and mad restrictions she describes but stayed around anyway.  It’s not just that fundamentalism broke off inside of me, as she says her brother put it to her about them both, but that I have become something other than a fundamentalist but found a home here anyhow.  At least I hope that’s why I’m here.

Let me explore that role for awhile, then.  Campbell’s work raises for me a number of questions.  The first and most obvious is, why do some people stay and others leave? It is tempting to reduce the answer to the differences in our genders and the roles gender plays in Churches of Christ.  It would never have occurred to me, for example, to entitle any memoir of my life so far in this movement with the overtly, if self-mockingly, erotic way for which Ms. Campbell opts.  Here, however, Campbell is in good company with Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, whom she mentions, and Teresa of Avila and a host of others she doesn’t.  Also, to be honest, I remember my distinct discomfort as a teenage boy in singing the hymn “Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe on his gentle breast,” and feeling more than a little threatened – can you unman a boy? – by that.  Eros’s strange affair with logos, and especially the Logos, plays in more than one way.

Yet life is never simple, and gender has never been as simple as an outsider would imagine by reading Campbell’s book.  It’s not just that we boys who were clumsy or bookish were at least as uncomfortable at the sports-oriented world of Green Valley as Campbell could ever have been.  It’s also that strong women did the most vital work of our congregation.  Many of them felt that the work of waiting the Lord’s table and all the rest was somewhat beneath their dignity.  Good enough for the men, important, but not all that crucial.  And I have often heard some of those women dissecting sermons and pointing out the mistakes the preacher made, not unkindly, but as a sort of warning to us men, especially us aspiring preacher boys, to get it right.  There was, and is, even in the most restrictive and closed environments in our churches, a sort of leaven at work, a clandestine theological discourse that is often richer than the public one and often at cross-purposes to it.  No, things are never quite as clear-cut as they seem.

Now it is also clear that my call to be a minister, which came even before my baptism, and which I would learn only much later to identify as a call, entailed a great deal of affirmation from both men and women and opportunities.  I preached my first sermon at 13 and was a boy preacher in Crawford County throughout high school.  I engaged in a written debate with a Nigerian Jehovah’s Witness when I was 15 or 16, an experience that Campbell had in her own way floating in a lake in the Ozarks.  There were rewards for such precocity.  But there were also distinct and painful punishments when I came home after a semester or two of college full of second thoughts and questions and ideas.  So the expectations do cut both ways.  With opportunity comes responsibility, not always in an easy to understand way.

At the same time, I think that staying and going are about more than just gender, just as they are about more than individual choices or sheer random variation.  They concern the structures of resources and responsibilities. And this seems to me to be the nub of the problem.  How can a religious movement that we both love, one of us enough to leave and another of us enough to stay, reform itself?  What resources lie within it for such a thing?  As someone who is experiencing that reform – it is not wishful thinking – let me talk about what I see.

Two words perhaps capture this: longing and loving.  Take the longing first.  At the risk of sounding like an exegete of bad country music, let me ask what this movement longs for.  Campbell herself says it well when she describes Churches of Christ as “frontier revivalism frozen in amber” but adds

“If that sounds grim, it isn’t.  If it sounds soulless, it isn’t that, either.  The traditions plant in the believer – even someone who walks away from the church – a deep and soulful need (38).”

What is this longing?  What makes people do the crazy things they do?  Why have so many parts of our little group, or not so little, actually fought over issues that seemed to most Christians idiosyncratic at best?

Part of the answer must lie in the sheer cussedness and stubbornness of Southerners, especially those from the working classes that mostly fed our congregations until the past generation or two.  Stubbornness was an adaptive skill, a way of defending oneself against the powerful.  But surely beneath that obstinacy at least sometimes lies a commendable willingness to defy the structures of power, a healthy conviction that, if God is real, human pretensions to mastery are not.  This is why my grandmother, who finished only the eighth grade but raised four kids to go to college and served as an elder’s wife and made a huge garden besides, could sing with such enthusiasm, “I’m satisfied with just a cottage below… I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltops.”  No irony there, no snideness, but deep longing.

Behind the overly literal readings of the Bible, the inflexible and often self-defeating adherence to trivial or even specious ideas, and the blindness to social corruption lies a deep longing to do the will of God.  You don’t need to date Jesus when you’re part of his bride. Or to put things a little more formally, at our best, Churches of Christ long for what another Campbell, Thomas this time, proposed as the basic attitude of the uniting church he sought to build:

[A]ll that are enabled, thro’ grace, to make such a profession, and to manifest the reality of it in their tempers and conduct, should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as brethren, children of the same family and father, temples of the same spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same divine love, bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance.  Whom God hath thus joined together, no man should dare to put asunder.  D & A, Proposition 9

This vision seems compelling enough for our contemporaries, and if we can recapture it, we can avoid giving our sons and daughters the same sorts of tortured theologies and self-understandings that Campbell describes.  We can do so because longing implies loving.

What is it we love?  The surprise for me in Dating Jesus’ version of Churches of Christ was the relatively little attention Campbell played to singing, except when mentioning the atavistic, tribal, almost primitive attachment we sometimes have toward a cappella music.  For me, this was and is one of the most life-giving aspects of our tradition.  More than just a curiosity, like the Amish’s refusal to wear buttons, it is a practice through which we have done our best theology.  It has been ecumenical in that we have sung the hymns of those with whom we would otherwise have had strong disagreements.  It has given us powerful ways to speak of our love for God and people.  It has inspired our faithful actions and challenged us in our self-indulgence.  Though I fear for its survival, given its current captivity to the schmaltzy side of the Christian liturgotainment industry, it has been and to some extent still is our language of love.  “There is a name I love to hear…”  “there is a habitation built by the living God.”  Perhaps the recapturing of that love will serve us in good stead.

Finally, I am grateful for Dating Jesus because, even if she is too polite to say so, Ms. Campbell calls on the church, and on Churches of Christ in particular, to do a better job of remembering its first love and find language and practices that articulate it for everyone, including baseball-playing tomboys from Missouri.  She has helped us do that, and for that we must be grateful.

Two Upcoming ACU Events

by   |  03.22.11  |  ACU, Broom Colloquium, Evangelism, Theology

We are excited about two upcoming ACU events.

First, you are invited to hear Dr. Abraham J. Malherbe, Buckingham Professor Emeritus of Yale University, on the topic “What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem” this Thursday, March 24, at 3:00 p.m. in room 114 of the Onstead Packer Biblical Studies building. Dr. Malherbe is one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars; he is the author of many books and articles, including major commentaries on the Thessalonian and Pastoral epistles.

Also this Thursday, at 7 p.m., Professor Elaine Heath, McCreless Associate Professor of Evangelism at Southern Methodist University, will give the annual Broom Lecture in Hart Auditorium. She is the author of, among other works, The Mystic Way of Evangelism: A Contemplative Vision for Christian Outreach. She will offer strong reasons why we need to rethink evangelism and its central role in Christian practice. The word has fallen on hard times, in part because of the ways in which Christians have abused it. But her lecture will help us think in fresh and exciting ways.

I am sure you will want to be part of these events. Admission is free, but the learning will be priceless. We hope to see you for both of these outstanding speakers!

Mercy Project

by   |  12.17.10  |  ACU, Change, Christianity, Contextual Theology, Contexual Education, Hope, Jesus, Justice, Learning, Ministry, Mission of God, Students, Theology, Video

At ACU Graduate School of Theology, we are convinced that deep learning requires real-world engagement. Contextual education–the phrase we use to describe this approach–reimagines the “classroom,” and “study;” and it means that we get to watch students partner with God in truly amazing ways. Working on behalf of enslaved children in Ghana, West Africa, Chris Field (Master of Arts in Christian Ministry, Executive Director of Mercy Project) is one such student. These are his words:

His name is Tomas, and he is about nine years old. He sits perfectly still in the middle of a small wooden fishing boat and watches my every move closely. I reach my hand out to him, and he slowly reaches back. As his small, dark hand embraces mine, these incredulous words form in my mind: “I am holding the hand of a slave.” Tomas lives in Ghana, Africa where he fishes on a boat fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. Tomas was probably sold by a desperate mother, for about $20, to a man she hoped would be able to send Tomas to school and feed him three times each day. Instead, his life is miserable, full of dangerous work and only enough food to keep him alive.

Unfortunately, Tomas is just one of an estimated 7,000 children working as slaves in the fishing industry of Ghana. These are the children we are working to help. These children are the reason we started Mercy Project. Our initial focus was to raise as much money as we could to help the children in slavery. But it didn’t take us very long to realize that the scope and depth of the problem would require more of us. Long-term solutions to the issue of child slavery in Ghana would have to include economic development- economic development that attacked the poverty and lack of economic opportunity that “forced” men to buy children like Tomas in the first place. This is why we are working to transform Ghana’s economy by creating new industry and businesses that are not dependant on child slavery. This economic development and opportunity gives viable alternatives to the country’s current economic choices. We believe this transformation is what will help us save Tomas and the other children working as slaves in Ghana.

This Christmas season, in the midst of all the celebration, I keep catching myself thinking about Tomas. I am sad that–on the outside–he has little reason to celebrate. But I am grateful for the chance to work on his behalf, and I am hopeful that his next Christmas will be full of joy. We invite you to join us in praying for Tomas and all of the hurting people in our world. Could there be a more fitting way for us to celebrate the humble birth of our Lord Jesus?

Theology, Technology, and Innovation

by   |  11.29.10  |  ACU, College of Biblical Studies, David Kneip, Learning, Students, Theology, Video

ACU Graduate School of Theology, the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy, and the Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry (DBMM) are all a part of the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University.  In the video below, DBMM instructor David Kneip speaks about theology, technology, and innovation at ACU.

Notes from an alumna

by   |  07.16.10  |  Alumni, Justice, Mission of God, New Wineskins, Theology

It’s always wonderful to watch the work of our alumni and alumnae, both those who are just beginning the life of ministry, and those who have been at it awhile.  You will enjoy an article one of our recent graduates, Jordan Wesley, wrote in the current issue of “Wineskins.”  It’s called “Why Justice Matters.”  Hear the voices of our younger Christian leaders as they remind those of us who are not so young anymore of what really matters.  Jordan is a terrific person making a real difference, and I know you’ll enjoy reading her work.

And, while we’re talking about that, please let us know what you’re doing.  We hope this blog will grow into a commons for communicating with each other about the important things in life.  Until then, all the best.

Renewing worship: Lessons from the Prophets (part 2)

by   |  07.06.10  |  Baseball, Bible, Caregiving, Christianity, Church, Hospitality, Prophets, Theology, Worship

This overly long post — overly long because of too little time to make it shorter — tries to pull together two difference experiences to comment on a third.  Perhaps you can make it all make sense.

First an allegory from baseball: Last week, my family and I were sitting in the Ballpark in Arlington during a two and a half hour rain delay.  It was misting a little (okay, a lot), but still was enjoyable enough.  People played everywhere, with kids and parents enjoying time out together.  On the whole, it was a beautiful time, and it reminded us of the grace that meets us everywhere if we are still long enough to notice it.

But as we sat talking, I started to think about the people around me, and being a theological educator, began to muse a bit about what the experience might say about worship, which after all is a human event (to which the Holy Spirit puts in an appearance, to be sure).  The ritual of baseball, with its numerology, focus on proper administration of rules, and appropriate acknowledgment of the keepers of the story (umpires and sportscasters and wise old players) inevitably reminded me of worship.  But that’s an old story, and there are lots of books on the theology (or Zen or whatever) of baseball.  So that’s not worth pursuing much here.

What is interesting is how much pleasure we all took in a game that is steeped in ritual and has been performed countless times before.  We did not know the precise outcome, though we did know that after nine innings or so, someone would win and would do so in a way that has been done before, maybe many times.  There is comfort in that mix of predictability and unpredictability.

So it is with Christian worship.  Some things are expected, and we know that the meaning of what we do lies not in our own volition or desire but in something far older and deeper and more beautiful.  And yet within the context of a tradition, a set of practices by a community over time, lies room for the unexpected and even the startling.  In worship, we become better people because we learn to care for things that matter, and thus for each other.

Watching families at the ballpark teaches you something else about worship, the importance of caring for one another.  I got to explain to my daughter about triples and infield flies, just as on Sunday I can initiate her in the far deeper and more holy experiences of God’s grace.  Care for the other before God figures prominently in Christian worship.  It is part of how that experience makes us better.

Second, a citation from a delightful article:  In the current issue of Harvard Magazine (, the anthropologist Arthur Kleinman talks about his life with his wife Joan, formerly a leading scholar of classical Chinese, now stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.  He writes about his experiences, “… caregiving is a foundational component of moral experience.  By this I mean that we envision caregiving as an existential quality of what it is to be a human being.  We give care as part of the flow of everyday lived values and emotions that make up moral experience.  Here collective values and social emotions are as influential as individual ones.  Within these local moral worlds — family, network, institution, community — caregiving is one of those things that really matters, but usually not the only thing.”

For me, this call to give care in order to be fully human (which, for Christians, means made in the image of God) clarifies what worship is about too.  It is prayer for those in need, whether Christian or not.  It is proclamation of God’s tender care for the least of us.  It is celebration of our togetherness.  It is defiance of the silences that cripple lives and keep us from each other.  Worship knits together the insecure and lonely teenager with the widow who has no one to talk with.  Worship humbles the proud and exalts the humble because it allows us to see ourselves, to some extent, as God sees us, neither more nor less.  It is thus the ultimate act of caregiving.  Often it is painful, often it is difficult, but always it is an experience that pushes us from our comfortable seat and allows us to slow down enough to find grace.

Next time, worship as a means of grace.  Your comments to this post, meandering as it is, would be appreciated!

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word

Renewing worship: Lessons from the Prophets (part 1)

by   |  06.29.10  |  Bible, Christianity, Church, Justice, Prophets, Theology, Worship

There’s a set of texts in the Minor Prophets I’ve been thinking about.  The following comments are part of a curriculum I wrote for a great church in Arlington, Texas.  Maybe it’ll be of use to others.  To preface it, let me say that I think much of our discussion of worship — and by “our,” I mean every religious group in America — misses the point.  Recall the acid comments of an Amos who has God saying “I hate, I despise your feasts.  (And that’s just for starters.)    Here’s a conversation we need to have.

To think about worship is to think about many things, including time, space, matter and its uses, the importance of leaders, the relationships between attitudes and actions, and many others.  Worship involves both external phenomena (such as movements and words) and internal realities (the inclinations, passions, longings, and perhaps even fears of the heart).  To worship well is to receive God’s gifts with gratitude and peace to offer to God, not our things or even our works, but our very beings.  Worship is not a transaction or an exchange.  It is our response to God’s overwhelming love and mercy.

The Bible speaks of worship in many ways: response to God’s creation (Job 38; Psalm 84), the response to God’s justice (1 Corinthians 11:17-22), and so on.  The Minor Prophets, in particular, take up two aspects of worship, its focus on the true and living God and its implications for the life of the community come together as one before that God.  The next lesson will focus on the latter theme, and this one on the former.


Like many Psalms and other biblical texts, the prophets call their audience to consider the majesty and generosity of God.  Unlike texts such as Isaiah 40-41, which explore God’s incomparability in detail, Hosea, Amos, and Micah praise God in incidental ways.  Consider some examples.

Hosea talks often of the God who redeemed Israel in the exodus (Hosea 9:10; 11:1; 12:9; 13:4-5).  This God calls human beings to lives of goodness and opposes evil (Hosea 4:1-3).  God does not show favoritism or allow election to be an excuse for oppression and injustice.  Such a God, therefore, cannot be represented by creations of human beings (idols), since any attempt to reduce God to something we understand denies the life-giving power of divine mercy (Hosea 14:8).  Yahweh is worthy of Israel’s worship because of His character.

Amos makes the grandeur of God even more explicit, not only by focusing on divine mercy toward all, by reminding his hearers of the language of the hymns they already know, which point toward divine power over creation and willingness to communicate intentions to human being.  Thus in Amos 4:13, the prophet quotes a hymn that speaks of God’s ability to create a beautiful world (compare Job 38 as well as Genesis 1) and then turns quickly to the phenomenon of prophecy (“and tells his thought to people”; see also Amos 3:7).  It is interesting that prophecy and creation can be mentioned in the same breath, as though they are two examples of the same sort of thing.  Prophecy – revelation of God’s will to people and thus guidance in things that matter permanently – creates something new.  In any case, the poem turns back to creation, speaking this time of God’s ability to undo what we have come to expect as normal and use it for new purposes.  The poem concludes with a reference to another of Yahweh’s names, “the lord of hosts” or “armies,” speaking of God’s mastery of the angelic hosts and thus of a world in which human beings play only a small role.

Amos also contains a second hymn, 9:5-6, which speaks of God’s incomparable power to reverse the normal flow of natural forces.  What is at stake in such a view of God?  Recall that the Bible does not celebrate power for its own sake, even God’s power.  Rather, it always speaks of power as it is used for good ends.  For example, kings use their ability to coerce others in order to end evil and bring about justice.  Parents use their power to train children in the ways they should go.  And God uses more or less unlimited power in order to draw human beings, and especially those in covenant, toward ethical, grace-filled lives.  At the same time, Amos wants to remind his audience of God’s majesty so that they will no longer ignore their commitments as though God were someone they could ignore or treat contemptuously.

Micah, meanwhile, offers many of the same visions of God as a majestic judge.  Chapter 7  opens with a lament (verses 1-6) to which a pious speaker responds, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, and I will wait for my saving God.  My God will hear me.”  This God aids those who humbly wait for deliverance in a troubled time.  Verses 8-13 respond to the lament in a different way by considering the possibility of a reversal of fortune for Israel, a time of healing and the rebuilding of community.  Those who believe Israel’s God cannot deliver the oppressed from their bonds will have a rude awakening.  How, then, does verse 7 connect to what follows it?  The answer seems to be that the book of Micah is designed to encourage the few who do hope in God to remember that God’s power and graciousness are complementary realities.  Power will be used for the good of humankind.


Two reflections are in order at this point.  First, notice that the prophets use an image of God with which many of us are very uncomfortable: God as judge.  Our discomfort comes from the way the image has sometimes been used.  Some Christians have made God into a judgmental figure, the “all-seeing eye watching you,” who takes note of every infraction and punishes without fail.  This understanding of God as judge is not what the prophets have in mind.  Their image is of a God of supreme mercy whose indignation is at injustice, not at petty violations, but at gross abuses of power and mistreatment of the vulnerable.  God the judge is God the vindicator: these are one and the same role.

Second, the prophets assume (as does the rest of the Bible) that those who are think deeply about the majesty of God will be better people than those who do not.  Awe before God leads to humility, graciousness, forgiveness, generosity, and other virtues that profoundly shape a life.  A vibrant, growing faith leads one to think of others as God’s children and thus as objects of our care as well.  (to be continued)

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word

Can Theology Be This Fun?

by   |  06.10.10  |  Behavior, Christianity, Society, Theology, Video, Worship

“We believe that the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better is by making it fun to do.”

Russ Kirby
Director of Student Services
ACU Graduate School of Theology

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 4)

by   |  05.04.10  |  Bible, Change, Christian, Church, Gospel, Hospitality, Identity, Ministry, Society, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Does the Gospel sell itself?  That’s how I began this series of posts, and that’s how I’ll end it.  If we are on a road alongside of which are exits to narcissism, self-indulgence, and self-promotion, and the Heavenly City seems further away in our rearview mirrors, then how do we change directions?  (I’ll drop the metaphor there, if you don’t mind!)  I’ve tried to set out some of the interpersonal and intellectual challenges because to reflect theologically and to act on the basis of that reflection, we need to consider several factors.

But here’s the final one, and the decisive one.  What does God want?  Now, I know that this question is tricky and easily hijacked by various sides of any given debate.  If you want change, you point to the God of renewal, and if you don’t want change, you mention the old paths.  Both sets of languages — both descriptions of the nature of God — have biblical warrant.  Which one applies at a given moment depends on several factors, not all of which everyone will agree upon.  Moreover, Christians have a wide range of views of just how specific God intends to be.  Neo-Calvinists assume that the sovereignty of God implies a very high degree of planning of human lives, while most other Christians are content to think of God painting in the cosmic picture in broader, more impressionistic strokes.  I do not say any of this to be cynical, but simply to note that I am aware of the hazards.

Still, as a Christian, I must always ask myself what God wants.  It is not legitimate to try to escape the question, if you want to think in Christian ways.  Here are some things (not everything!) that Scripture, which I believe to be the best indication of God’s will that we have, seems to think God wants from us:

1. Let’s be passionate about the search for God.  Christians should pray a lot and with passion.  If we spent more time on our knees, we might spend less time wringing our hands or shouting.  As Paul said to the Athenians, God has given us evidence of nearness by raising Jesus from the dead.  The search is not an idle quest for an elusive goal, but the pursuit of one lover for another seeking rest together.

2.  Let’s care about the stranger.  I have long been struck by Exodus’s story of the redemption of Israel and the legal conclusions that the text draws from that experience: “you shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).  Perhaps Christians are so hostile to immigrants and other vulnerable people because we have concluded that this land really is our land, not simply a place on loan from God while we move toward our final home.  Have we forgotten that we too are strangers, that we too are redeemed people?

3. Let’s remember that we are in this together.  It is distressing to watch churches split over issues that can only be classified as trivial.  I have always found that praying for those with whom I disagree (which is quite a few people, as it happens!) or whom I found narrow and annoying and petty (also a fairly large group) changes things.  Very few Christians are so alienated from their own calling that we cannot find in them something to cherish.

4. Let’s remember that change can be both good and necessary.  Some folks I know are worried about “change agents.”  I’ve even read journals that argue that all change is to be resisted.  Of course, this is absurd.  Sometimes change is apostasy, true, and that is to be resisted.  But sometimes change is repentance, as when churches quit making one race sit in the balcony while another sat on the pews on the floor.  Sometimes change is simply maturation as when we recognize that our group does not have a monopoly on Christian commitment or understanding.  And sometimes it’s just change, relatively benign and neutral in meaning.  To fear change is to fear life.  The key is to make change rather than suffer it, and to make it with the highest Christian ideals in mind.

5. Finally, let’s remember that to be church is the greatest calling in the world.  We cannot cherish Christ without also cherishing his bride.  The church often needs correction — we are always reforming — but we also need to be loved and to love the magnificent calling we have received to be harbingers of God’s Kingdom, in which no one suffers hunger, no one is alone, no one is disrespected, and all find a place of dignity and honor at the bountiful table of the Lord.

May it always be so!  I’ll start a new series in a few days, after the Pepperdine lectures.  I hope to see you there!

Does the Gospel Sell Itself? (part 3)

by   |  04.22.10  |  Bible, Church, Ministry, Mission, Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Mark Hamilton, PhD - Associate Dean, Associate Professor of Old Testament, ACU Graduate School of Theology

Ours is a time in which all the old truths have seemed questionable, all the old habits indefensible, and all the old passions unthinkable.  Since Christianity is no longer a new religion and since Christians are often leaders in the power systems of the world and therefore often implicated in its evils, many men and women ask us whether Christianity, and thus the Gospel, makes any sense.  They ask, to put things very bluntly, if Christianity is good for you.  Does following the way of Jesus make you a better person?  Does the church help people live in community in better ways?  If there is a God, is this God good?  Critics of Christianity such as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens tell us that God is not great, and that religion (at least they don’t just try to finger us!) is the source of all the evil in the world.

Now a lot of their rhetoric is nonsense.  Let’s be clear about that.  Many of the critiques are ill informed about all sorts of things.  They set up straw people to knock down.  They pit the most ignorant Christians and against the best informed non-Christians.  So there is much of the noise we can safely ignore as the last rantings of a publicity-seeking, sensationalistic media and public.

But is that all there is to the brouhaha?  Surely it is fair to say that many of us Christians (and other religious people) are confused about what our faith really teaches.  We adjust to a series of compromises with worldly structures and react out of fear when we should act out of hope.  The critics have a point there.  To provide a real answer to the intellectual challenges facing us, then, Christians have to be clear about a few things that our faith actually teaches.  Here are some:

1. There really is only one God, and we are not it!  The great Christian confessions such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed, to say nothing of the Bible, are organized around the confession of the supremacy, transcendent goodness, and honor of God.  The center of the faith is not the faith itself, much less any laws, practices, ideas, doctrines, etc. deriving from the faith.  God is God, and we are all seekers in need of redemption.

2. The human approach to God comes through radical submission to the way of love.  Christians vigorously pursue nonviolence in all we do.  We join in the criticism of the relentless pursuit of money and power.  We strongly question any human system that turns people into commodities.  We disdain privilege in all its forms.  We believe that God calls us to love all our neighbors as ourselves.

3. We also believe that all human systems are flawed, some very deeply.  Some Christians call this original sin, and of course we debate just how deeply flawed humans are.  Surely the evidence is complex.  But it is also incontrovertible.  When St. Paul said that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, he was simply stating the obvious.  It follows from this fact that no human system can command our final, unquestioning loyalty (not a nation, not an economic system, not even a way of doing family).

4. We Christians think that vigorous pursuit of truth is a worthwhile goal, and that we have nothing to fear from honest inquiry.  We think that our congregations should be places in which such inquiry occurs.

5. Our faith is deeply intertwined with hope.  Our critics misunderstand what we mean by hope, and frankly many Christians do too.  We seem to see heaven as an escape from this world, as a kind of ace up God’s sleeve to make everything right.  But that’s not what Scripture says.  It talks instead about living lives that participate in God’s work of redeeming humanity.  It talks about a God who can balance mercy and justice just right so as to bring about the final elimination of evil (something we can just barely conceive of).  That’s a different view than the one attributed to us, and it’s different than the one we sometimes hear in church.

This is a long blog post.  Thanks for sticking with it.  More next time!

Does the Gospel Sell Itself (part 2)

by   |  04.15.10  |  Bible, Church, Ministry, Mission, Theology

How do we get off the road?  How do we join the earliest disciples in their journey, for which a single change of clothes and the greatest possible trust in God was enough?  How do we do this together, so that we don’t play generations or theological stances or ways of doing church off against each other, adding to the divisions of Christendom?  Let’s try some basic ideas.

First, let’s get some clarity on mission. The Bible talks about the church in many different ways: herald of good tidings, a people sent, an attacking army (remember that line “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”?), the cosmic body of Christ, God’s household, and other things.  The church is not a dispenser of goods and services, but a body of praying and serving people.  We don’t point to ourselves, but to God living in us.   Selling the church as such is almost the worst thing we can do.  We “sell” the story of God’s redemptive work in us and beyond us.

Second, let’s shift from an idea of the church member as consumer to the member as seeker of God. All of us are seekers, and all of us are trying to grow in our love of God, our faith in God’s promises, and our hope for a better life for everyone.  A lot of my friends want us to get rid of the idea of church membership altogether, because they think it’s unbiblical (which, technically, it is) and, more seriously, unhelpful.  It reinforces divisions (insiders and outsiders) that don’t quite make sense.  I’m not sure I think we have to get rid of the language altogether, but my friends have a point.

Third, let’s think small. Now, I’m not criticizing big churches.  That’s not the point.  Healthy big churches work hard on building relationships in small groups, and they use their size to accomplish things that small churches usually can’t pull off.  The problem is not size as such, but anonymity.  Let me give an analogy.  When I was a little kid, I used to love to go to my grandpa’s service station.  It had two gas pumps and a garage for a mechanic.  And it was a gathering place where people had relationships.  If you couldn’t pay for your gas this week, Grandpa Sullivan would put your name in his little book so you could pay next week.  Contrast that with the chains I buy gas at now.  They’re quicker, more efficient, probably more environmentally responsible, and they sell more of the junk food we like on long trips.  But relationships?  Not really.  In our increasingly fragmented world of people bowling alone, churches have to think pretty carefully about community.

Fourth, to tie all this up, let’s talk about stakeholding. In other words, are there people in our churches whose absence we would not miss, whose opinions we do not consult, whose faith we do not consider, and whose wisdom we don’t draw on?  My guess is that the answer is yes.  Think about the incredible waste of that situation.  How do we give more people more of a stake in what happens in our congregations?  This especially applies to the young and the old, but it applies to all of us.

These are some thoughts.  I’d welcome your comments.  Next time, I’ll try to talk about the intellectual/theological issues we face today.

Dr. Mark W. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Old Testament and
Associate Dean
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
Editor, The Transforming Word