Category Archives: Christian living

A Christian View of Politics?

In the meantime, I thought I’d continue my review of Paul As Missionary (Bloomsbury, 2011). Daniel Hays’ essay “Paul and the Multi-Ethnic First-Century World: Ethnicity and Christian Identity” (pp. 76-87) may be the most important essay in the book. He argues that the early church developed in a multicultural setting. The world of the first century was comprised of a multitude of ethnic groups (ethne). So Paul is not just breaking down barriers between “Jews” and “Gentiles.”

He is declaring that the followers of Christ are a new and different ethnicity and their primary identity and group association must change from their old self-identity to this new one (p. 84).

As Christians, therefore, we have a brand new ethnic identity. Both Jews and Gentiles are members of the kingdom of God, with Abraham as their common ancestor. Hence “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20) is a highly political statement. Paul lived in a very ethnically diverse world. So do we. People tend to identify themselves ethnically — i.e., in terms of social, cultural, religious, territorial, and linguistic features. All of these elements, taken together, define one’s self-identity. When Paul calls for unity he does so along these very lines of ethnic markers.

Paul tells the new believers that their primary identity, i.e., their major group association (their ethnos), is no longer one of the many ethne they used to belong to (Phrygia, Galatia, Roman, Greek, Judean/Jew, Lycaonian, Cappadocian, etc.), but rather is to be found in their incorporation into Christ and his Church (p. 87).

He adds:

This now defines who they are, which family they are in and who their kin are, where their citizenship and loyalty lies, how they are to carry out religious practices, how they are to live and speak, who their true ancestors are, and where their future hope lies (p. 87).

This sense of heavenly citizenship ” … is a radical restructuring of their primary identity” (p. 87). Hays is adamant: If Christians continue to see themselves first and foremost as Americans or Chinese or Korean or Hispanic or African-American, they will end up “… relegating their identity in Christ to a secondary and subservient identity,” and “there will be disunity and ethnic division in the Church” (p. 87).

Let’s let that sink in. These reflections take us a long ways in understanding the distinctive emphasis of the New Testament. If the social ethics of the kingdom of God seem to be dramatically different from those of the world and the nation-state, it’s because they’re supposed to! Hays expresses a growing conviction I’ve had for several years now, namely that our only duty and allegiance as Christians is to God and His kingdom. It is out of our duty to God that we obey the civil laws and pay our taxes and pray for those in authority over us in the political realm. At the same time, it is also out of our duty to God that we inveigh against any practice or social norm that is inconsistent with His rule. This means that there never has been nor ever be will a distinctly “Christian” position on politics. Good evangelical Christians voted for Trump. Good evangelical Christians voted for Clinton. Good evangelical Christians voted third party. And good evangelical Christians didn’t vote at all. Pastor friend, if you’re going to wave pompoms for Trump, please remember that there are probably people in your congregation who didn’t vote for him. Good and decent people disagree about politics! If we focus our time and energy on politics, we will never experience a unified church. Instead, our focus and energy must be expended on replicating the self-sacrificing love of Jesus to all people. The church, as Hays argues (and as the apostle Paul argued), is a new ethnos — a new nation whose only loyalty is to God, who sovereignly uses our Calvary-acts of love to transform the world into a domain in which He and He alone rules. Confessing “Jesus as Lord” automatically rules out an allegiance to any other person or thing!

To sum up:

  • People with the same faith commitments and values can and often do have fundamental differences about politics.
  • Everyone should vote his or her faith and conscience.
  • The fundamental job of followers of Jesus is to manifest the rule of God by imitating Jesus’ radical lifestyle.
  • There is only one “Christian nation,” and it is the blood-bought people of God.
  • Our fundamental loyalty has to be to King Jesus. A husband who is 50 percent faithful to his wife is no true husband at all.
  • We will no longer emphasize our political, national, or ethnic differences. There is more to unite us than to divide us in the universal body of Christ.
  • Beware of any deals with the devil to get the kingdoms of the world by short-cuts.

God’s people need to be what they are — ambassadors pleading with men and women to be reconciled to God. Blessed are those saints who can see beyond their political, national, and ethnic differences. We followers of Jesus will always be a minority in a pagan world. We do not have to bow to political compromise to win the world. The only way to usher in the kingdom is by the cross.

(From Dave Black Online. [Nov. 21, 2016: 7:40 pm.] Used by permission.)

A Marathon Plan

Dave facing the MatterhornIs your church up to doing a marathon? A marathon is 26.2 miles. It’s a slugfest. But you finish by taking one step at a time. So here are 26.2 ideas to get you started and maybe even keep you going to the end.

1) If you are a pastor, I might suggest that you stop training for “chief ministry provider” and start training for “chief ministry developer.”

2) Let us rid ourselves of the “consumerism” mentality once and for all. It stands opposite to the “body ministry” as described in the New Testament.

3) As leaders, let’s commit ourselves to discovering and employing the untapped potential that exists in our churches.

4) The shift from the “ministry of the clergy” to the “ministry of the laity” is one of the most important decisions facing the church today. Let’s make it.

5) Let’s self-identify first and foremost as a servant. Only one class of people exists within the church, servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. Within that class there will always be different functions, but servanthood is incumbent upon all of us.

6) Realize that the under-utilization of our members is the primary reason why the mission of God is not being fully realized in the world and the reason why there is a dearth of servant-leadership in the church. (Side note: You might read my essay The Future of Southern Baptist Missions.)

7) The “laity” in your congregation is the most bountiful leadership resource available. Use it.

8) The role of the seminary is to come alongside local churches in training men and women for God-called ministries. This resource is useful so take advantage of it. But it can never become a substitute for in-house apprenticeship training.

9) If you are a leader, be willing to step aside and allow gift-based ministry to occur. Your people must be given freedom and authority for this to happen. Clergy must view the laity as equal in importance, as authentic ministers of the Gospel.

10) Recover the spirit of volunteerism in which every member is valued and equipped to pursue their ministry.

11) Let’s stop minimizing the importance of the local church for identifying, selecting, and developing leaders. As much as possible, indigenous leadership is our goal.

12) The most effective churches today are those that are developing a team-based approach to leadership. Collaborative team fellowship is essential to a healthy church. Since all are to be involved in ministry, team ministry will help to flatten hierarchies and reinforce the notion that there is no such thing as a passive Christian. If at all possible, let’s all avoid doing ministry alone.

13) We’ve got to set an example. The process of homegrown leadership is best done within an environment of mentoring and coaching. Seeing how something is done, rather than just hearing how it is done, is liberating. Let’s focus less on telling and more on coaching. Relationships comprise the chalkboard on which God explains Himself.

14) Share openly with your congregation about the mentors in your own life. The first mentor in my life was Dr. Harry Sturz of Biola University. He taught me the life skills of the classroom, diligence, what good scholarship looked like, and devotion to my students. He stood by me, encouraged me, prayed for and with me, and wouldn’t let me give up on my dreams of earning a doctorate. To him I owe an eternal debt of love, gratitude, and devotion.

15) Provide a biblical foundation for all you do. The book of Acts is a good place to start.

16) Don’t wait to begin this process of empowering ministry to others. Jesus was keen to pass the baton of leadership early in His ministry. If you wait for “perfection,” it will never happen.

17) Be patient with yourself and others. The empowerment model of ministry is laborious and time-consuming. Remember: You’re running a marathon, not a sprint.

18) Memorize key New Testament texts and pass them on to others. I would begin with 2 Tim. 2:2 (Paul’s goal was to train, teach, and empower capable followers who in turn could train, teach, and empower their own followers); Eph. 4:11-13 (Paul taught that equipping people for ministry [“works of service”] is God’s plan for the pastoral care of His people); and 1 Cor. 12:12-26 (where Paul teaches that God’s Spirit equips the church with a host of ministry functions that result in an empowered body capable of adequately fulfilling the mission of God in the world).

19) Remember that even if you only duplicate your heart and passion in one other leader, you have doubled the effectiveness of your ministry.

20) If you have a dependency model in your church, remember that it always comes from a climate of disempowerment.

21) Always emphasize the work of the triune God when it comes to spiritual gifts. This is the clear teaching of 1 Cor. 12:4-6, where Paul says that the Spirit grants gifts to all members, the Son assigns places of service, and God the Father grants us the outworkings or results of our ministries. So there are three steps in this process: discovering our gifts, discovering the place where we can best exercise those gifts, and discovering what God wants to accomplish through us as we exercise those gifts in the place of His appointment.

22) We must take the Great Commission seriously. The church is not only a community of those who learn of Christ but who witness to others and proclaim in word and deed the Lord Jesus and His salvation to anyone who will listen. The whole life of a local church is to be one of service and sacrifice and witness.

23) Let’s remember that the goal of all Christian education (whether it be in the local church or in the seminary) is to incorporate the mission thrust of Jesus into all of our students. The goal is for each local church to “offer the message of life” (Phil. 2:16) in a way that people will know why and how they should turn to this new Lord Jesus Christ.

24) Let’s work hard to see to it that “missions” means more than sending money to support missionaries and missions programs. All Christians are missionaries, and all are to be involved personally in service to the world. That’s why I sometimes introduce myself to people, not as a professor of Greek, but as a fulltime missionary. According to the New Testament, missional service is not the prerogative of an elite corpus but the function of the whole people of God.

25) Let us teach, preach, and model the truth that the gathering exists for the going. It is exactly by going outside itself that the church is itself.

26) Let our priority become being the Master’s messengers in the world and let our churches be satellite offices of the kingdom of God. Let every member of the body see him- or herself as a strategic player in missionary work as both salt and light.

26.2) Finally, remember that there is no “magic formula” for getting any of this done — including lists like this one. There is no such thing as “26.2 steps to becoming a New Testament church.” Living in obedience to Christ means, above all, living in daily communion and fellowship with His Spirit. There’s no better leader than He. Believer, your pastor or your church cannot do the ministry God has given you to perform. Following Jesus is a journey that requires honesty, vulnerability, and commitment. The New Covenant is not an idea to consider but a life to be lived. As I look back, I am convinced that God was profoundly placing me under the mentorship of some of the most godly and humble men on the planet. I am convinced that He has such mentors for you, people who will take your hand and work alongside of you for the glory of God and for the good of His church. I sense there’s a movement bubbling up in our churches today that goes beyond a “seven-easy-steps-approach” and celebrates a completely new way of living. I thank God for the millennials among us who aren’t just complaining about the church but are dreaming of what it might become. Each of us has the privilege of serving Jesus every time we exercise our spiritual gift in His power and for His glory, every time we feed the hungry, every time we acknowledge the value and dignity of the strangers in our midst, every time we love the forsaken and remember the prisoners. Empowerment is giving people permission to become engaged in a meaningful way in the work Christ is doing in the world today.

So ….

On your mark, get set,

GO!

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.

A Mountain to Climb

Becky Black Memorial Fund signI came to Zermatt in search of a summit or two — and, like Terry Fox, the Canadian who ran thousands of miles on one leg to raise money for cancer research, I wanted to give a nod to the Becky Black Memorial Fund, which I started a few weeks ago. (To date, 650 million Canadian dollars have been raised in Terry’s name. I’m trying to raise $25,000.) I decided I’d display a banner with Becky’s name on it every time I summited one of Zermatt’s peaks. You ask, “Weren’t you even a little bit afraid?” Oh yeah. For the first hundred yards or so I always had butterflies in my stomach. But as Helen Keller once said, “It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach. Just get them to fly in formation.” (A heartfelt thanks, by the way, to everyone like Helen Keller who has been an inspiration to me.) To climb my first 4,000-meter peak (that is, anything over 13,123 feet), I drew on less than a year of experience climbing the hills of Virginia and North Carolina. After a lot of looking back at the past year, I asked myself a big question: “Are you really up to it?” Charles Dickens once said that it was focus that made him such an accomplished writer. “I could never have done what I have done,” he said, “without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.” Coming to Zermatt I think was the Lord’s way of saying to me, “Dave, I want you to concentrate yourself one more time.”

In climbing I’ve discovered something I love — a thing that really turns me on and excites me. Passion is what enabled Aimee Mullins to set records for running even though she’s missing two legs. I care passionately about what I do in life. I really want to do them. I don’t know where these passions come from (other than from the Lord), but I’ve got them. I love teaching. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I think being irrationally passionate about what you do is enormously healthy. I’m what psychologists refer to as a “striver.” Strivers are people who know what they want and run straight toward it. There’s something in me that pushes me to challenge myself as a climber, and I just have to go with it. Exploring your passions doesn’t mean you have to go all the way. I have no interest in climbing anything much over 15,000 feet. And yes, it’s hard work, but that’s part of the fun. (By the way, I’ve never known anyone who has accomplished anything in life who didn’t work hard at it. Nothing worthwhile in life is easy. Before leaving for Switzerland I trained 100 miles a month not to mention the hours I spent in the gym lifting. Still, it’s not about the hours. It’s about enjoying what you do.)

Dave standing on the side of a mountainHere’s my message for you today, good friend. (Yes, I’m in a preachy mood.) Be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish your God-given goals. I believe that climbing not only brings me satisfaction but also a sense of confidence. We become confident when we meet a challenge head-on and overcome it. I’ll never forget the day my guide Walter took me to Zermatt’s famous Klettersteig — a vertical rock wall on very exposed terrain. A long metal ladder is the key point in the entire climb. It took us 4 hours to climb 1,800 vertical feet. Focus was absolutely critical.

Many people work hard but they’re not focused. They’re Dabblers and not Doers. I realized as soon as I began climbing the Klettersteig that I had to focus. The focus paid off and I completed the course.

When Bill Gates started Microsoft he focused on one thing and only one thing. “Microsoft is designed to write great software,” he said. “We are not designed to be good at other things.” Being able to focus will help you regardless of what you’re doing. My formula for climbing is simple: training and concentration, and then more training and concentration. The truth is that we all find it easy to focus on what we love doing. When people are lazy, they’re usually lazy about things that don’t interest them. To climb you’ve got to love the sport — and then you’re got to push, push, push yourself, mentally and physically. Mostly I’ve had to push through self-doubt. In climbing there are plenty of opportunities for second-guessing yourself: Will my body adjust to the elevation, will my legs be strong enough to carry me, will I tire out before the climb is over? On this trip there were many moments when I said, “Oh man, I can’t believe I got this far!” The trick is to keep pushing yourself, even when you think you can’t persevere.

Dave facing the MatterhornSetting goals can help us push through our manmade barriers. I wanted to bag two summits on this trip, and I got them both. So even though I’m not a very experienced climber, I realized my dreams, thanks (1) to the grace of God and (2) to pushing. In life it is always important to have goals, no matter what those goals are. My goals for next summer are to summit my second 4000-meter peak and to scramble up the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn. On each trip to the Alps I want to set for myself titanic challenges and try to rise above them. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not necessarily cut out to be a climber. Walking and trekking come much more naturally to me. But I enjoy new challenges and I think climbing pushes me. Summiting the Breithorn at 13,661 feet was a real challenge for me, but I think I took on that challenge to propel myself forward in life.