“God once had Bach and Michelangelo on his side. He had Mozart. And now who does he have? People with ginger whiskers and tinted spectacles who reduce the glories of theology to a kind of [?]. That’s what religion has become: a feeble and anemic nonsense,” Stephen Fry. Listen to the recording here.
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This follows on from last week’s blog looking at some theology we might have around calling and some alternative ways of thinking about it. In conversations with various Christians and reading books and random articles, etc on the internet sooner or later you will come across the (almost uniquely Pentecostal) rejection of higher learning in favour of more practical or useful pursuits. How many times have I been discussing some theological issue with a group of people when one or more dismisses the discussion with something along the lines of, “Oh who cares; it’s not that important anyway”? Who cares? Obviously the people who having been discussing this for the hour, few days, year, etc. But I can’t now dismiss this question by saying, “Who cares about the ‘who cares’ question; it’s not that important anyway.” The question is important for the fact that it points to an attitude that should underlie these discussions. In a sense, what we are talking about does not matter (eg. the authorship of Hebrews); there will probably be more pressing social and spiritual issues (practical/useful pursuits). But in the same way that the fighter of the good fight needs to stop to sleep and eat and toilet, and etc, and including even some recreation and rest on the side, is not also theology important? If Paul didn’t write Hebrews then doesn’t this affect the way you read the book? ‘Who cares’ then, is valuable for bringing God and our priorities back into focus, but it should never be an excuse to stop thinking.
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Some time in the 3rd Century, Pope Dionysius of Alexandria converted from paganism to Christianity and with that was called by God to study the writings of the heretics so that he could refute them. He was warned by a priest of the danger in doing so, which is indicative of the general view at the time, an almost fear that reading the heretics would lead you away from Christ. And so it happens that today what we know of the heretics is only through reference to them in other writings of the early church, bar a few exceptions. The story of Dionysius is valuable because not only did he claim the Spirit led him to do something contrary to church norms, but this leading is confirmed by the fact that he was an influential bishop who did not later apostatise, as would be expected of a reader of the heretics, and was also the first pope to be called ‘the Great’, by Eusebius, the father of church history. If I may continue the example of higher learning, even ostensibly useless theological issues, can I say that it is not whether a bible college prepares you for ministry or overcrowds your mind with an intellectualised conception of God, but whether the Wind blows in that direction, whether it is in the will of God?
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There is a popular passage in Ephesians that is often used as a theological base for ministry, known as the five-fold ministry: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:11-13). The hermeneutical strength of this passage is akin to the aforementioned ‘who cares’ question. Paul not only lists a group of roles in the early church, but explicitly states their purpose, the purpose that should realistically underlie Christ-centered ministry. There is however a danger, the danger that people take Paul’s description of early church ministry as exhaustive. Is ministry today limited to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers? Clearly the writer of Song of Songs was a teacher. Give me a break, Kit Kat. Or maybe the erotic poem is intended to describe God’s love in human terms. Sure, after a rather forced reading you can come to this conclusion. Perhaps it is a little easier to fit the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes into the office of teacher, bearing in mind that the best (uplifting) teaching in Ecclesiastes is the hasty conclusion, and that Job and his friends’ discussions on the nature of God and suffering are altogether dismissed by their Lord in the end. This is a short argument, I know, but I would argue that the respective writers do not fit easily into the five-fold ministry, but rather the ministry of poet, expressing aspects of the human condition (love, doubt/meaninglessness, suffering, etc), which a healthy Church needs to acknowledge, in line with Paul’s measuring stick for good ministry (vv.12-13).
Depending on the intentions of the artist, other areas in art can be labelled as ministry as well, which is what Stephen Fry notes in the beginning quote and points out how the secular world has largely overtaken a predominantly Christian art world (in Europe). Another example is ministry that focusses on social issues. Perhaps in a sense they are prophets, denouncing the practices of a church and secular world who ignore the needs of the least of these. Or maybe they can be called pastors and their flock is the poor (although, there’s some homework — I’m not sure how closely the modern pastor fits with Paul’s conception of the 1st Century pastor, so help me out here!). Yet if you head up a Christian organisation with social foci, you are likely to label it a ministry. The qualifier for ministry is not therefore how much you can align the ministry with one of five of Paul’s examples, but how well does it “equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”¹
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Image from http://stdionysius.sca.org.nz/stuff/Dionysius.jpg
¹First footnote, yay! You may realise there is a flaw in my argument where I define social ministry as ministry in line with Paul’s qualifier because ministry is that it would equip the body of Christ, whereas social ministry is often among non-Christians. This is refuted when you see that Paul includes the office of evangelist in the five fold ministry, one that does not necessarily work among God’s people.