David Alan Black: A New School Year and a Favorite Book

Seven Marks of a New Testament ChurchI’m really looking forward to a fun and exciting fall semester, not least because I’m teaching NT Intro again for the first time in several years. The course covers Acts – Revelation, which means that, if I time things just right, the semester will end before I have to discuss the Apocalypse (wink, wink)! Let me tell you how we’re beginning the class. Day One consists of students reading the book of Acts and then also reading my Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – which, I would remind you, is nothing but an exegesis of Acts 2:37-47, eleven of the most action-packed verses in the entire New Testament. Students will then produce a “reaction paper” to what they have read and I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the rest of us what they learned. Thus, from the very first day of class, we’ll be asking ourselves the question: “What does an obedient church look like?” Christian discipleship means placing ourselves under orders. It’s not merely a psychological experiment in self-improvement (along with watching our weight and catching up on our Honey-Do lists). As disciples, we are not on our own. The goal is not self-actualization but obedience to the instructions of the church’s Head and only Boss.

That’s one reason I’m enjoying reading James Thompson’s new book called The Church according to Paul: Recovering the Community Conformed to Christ. Now if that doesn’t sound like an Anabaptist title!

How easily we profess a willingness to do church “God’s way” but forget the first condition of obedience: understanding what the Bible teaches about the church. Thompson’s book contains nine chapters, the final of which is called “Leadership Like No Other for a Community Like No Other.” He argues it’s time for all hands on deck. Alas, “church” for so many today means pastor-centrality rather than every-member ministry. Writes Thompson:

With few exceptions, two unintended consequences have resulted from the professionalization of ministry: (a) a failure to recognize that “member” is an image that suggests the indispensable participation of the body of Christ by each person; and (b) the loss of the focus on the cruciform nature of leadership.

Bingo! Paul understood what leadership looked like: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” How odd this seems in the face of our sermon-centered lives. What makes the Gospel life-changing isn’t a message or a concept but the real-life person who has been radically changed by that message. As you and I enter post-Christian America and modernism, we understand that knowledge is no longer king as it was during the Enlightenment. People who don’t go to church don’t go for any number of reasons, but high on the list is probably the fact people no longer automatically assign authority to a building or to a man (whether he is wearing a collar or not). And I write that as someone who loves to give “sermons”! But to be a New Testament Christ-follower is to be a disciple of Jesus and not of any man. There are no two ways about it. Church can never be what its Head designed it to be without Christ assuming the role of “Commanding Officer” in my life and yours. This will involve nothing less than a transformed vision of reality that is able to see Christ as more real and more coveted and more powerful and more lovely than anyone or anything our churches can offer us. I know this is like asking my students to walk on water. But was not Peter able to do just that for those seconds when his gaze was locked on Christ’s, his mind set on things above? It is a profound moment in our lives when we realize that this pilgrimage of ours isn’t just about us or even our churches. My hope and prayer is that my students this semester will have the courage and obedience to launch out into the deep. Because it matters. It really matters.

During the Montreal conference a young man asked me what I thought was my favorite of all the books I’ve written. I replied that I thought the question was a bit unfair — akin to asking, “Which of your grandchildren do you love the most?” I confess to taking pleasure in each of my books, just as I love each of my grandchildren equally. I hope others have enjoyed my writings — and not just those who were forced to read them as required textbooks! Still, the question is a fair one. Without a doubt, I believe my most important book is one that only tangentially deals with Greek. It’s a book that recounts the quiet shift that happened in my heart many years ago now — a shift from law to grace, to freedom over fear, from orthodoxy to orthopraxy (without ever sacrificing my orthodoxy), from, if you will, Paul to Jesus and the Gospels. Like an earthquake destabilizing old power structures, the life of Christ crept into my consciousness. What I had to learn was that God delights in taking messes and making them into masterpieces. He began to open my eyes and allow me to see what He sees when He looks at me — a man forgiven and loved, God’s own dwelling place, a man destined to use his whole being (including his body) as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God alone. It seems too incredible to believe, right? But that’s why euangelion means Good News. Because of our union with this Lion-Lamb, we have a new identity, a new destiny, and a new purpose in life. It all comes down to the question, “Am I following Jesus with no strings attached?” Dallas Willard put it this way in his book The Great Omission:

The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as “Christian” will become disciples — students, apprentices, practitioners — of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.

As I peer into the past, I see now why God led me to write The Jesus Paradigm. He delights in taking damaged goods and making them into trophies of grace. And I pray that this book of mine will impact other damaged people the way it impacted my own life when I wrote it. I was no longer merely a consumer of Christianity. I realized that if I’ve received mercy, I needed to dispense it. Whether you are a plumber or a pastor, your calling (and mine) is a sacred vocation. God wants us to be like His Son — motivated by His glory to worship Him as we go about doing our daily work, whatever that is. Even if we’re not in what we would consider the “ideal” job, we can still do our best for His glory. Jesus fulfilled His God-given assignment with maximum effort. He gave 200 percent. His one goal was to do the Father’s will by serving others.

My friend, pause for a moment and contemplate the words of Jim Elliott: “Wherever you are, be all there, and live to the hilt whatever you are convinced is the will of God for your life.” And remember, as we do this – as we follow the Jesus paradigm – He is cheering us on.

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