Monday, November 03, 2008

What is "enough"? Reflections on theological performance and pride

Dave Bish posted a link to some mp3 sessions by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis and a list of contrasts between "communities of grace" and "communities of performance." Tim Chester sets them out as follows:
Communities of Performance

The leaders appear sorted
The community appears respectable
Meetings must be a polished performance
Identity is found in ministry
Failure is devastating
Actions are driven by duty
Conflict is suppressed or ignored
The focus is on orthodoxy and behaviour (allowing people to think they’re sorted)
Communities of Grace

The leaders are vulnerable
The community is messy
Meetings are just one part of community life
Identity is found in Christ
Failure is disappointing, but not devastating
Actions are driven by joy
Conflict is addressed in the open
The focus is on the affections of the heart (with a strong view of sin and grace)
He then goes on to offer some brief, helpful comments.

Linking a focus on orthodoxy or behaviour with a "community of performance" ought to be out of place. They belong firmly in a community of grace (just think of the weighting that Paul gives to orthodoxy and behaviour in the pastoral epistles). Of course the crunch issue is the context in which they are placed, and how they are approached, hence I assume the immediate caveat in brackets (allowing people to think they are sorted). They don't, however, inherently belong there. A focus on orthodoxy is precisely what must mark Timothy's ministry:
Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (2 Timothy 1:13-14)
"Follow" the pattern, the blueprint, and "guard" the good deposit are Paul's imperatives to Timothy. Orthodoxy, however, has a certain atmosphere. The pattern of sound teaching is to be followed in the "faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." Similarly Paul spells out how heterodox teachers are to be engaged in a way that stresses the need for a right heart approach to the problem (2 Timothy 2:22-26). A community of grace must focus on orthodoxy, and it will seek to do so in the atmosphere of the faith and love that are in Christ.

A focus on orthodoxy can of course end up wrongly supporting a community of performance. Theological knowledge can become a means of achieving status within a community. What is intended for our good, and the good of the community, becomes the means by which we advance our status and image in the eyes of others, or the means by which we feel diminished and belittled before others. In other words doctrinal knowledge becomes the offering that we present to the idol of pride. Conversely, our lack of knowledge can drive us to painful insecurity. And that of course is pride on the way down.

Diagnostic questions to ask ourselves
  • How much knowledge is enough?
  • How much do I need to know to achieve, maintain and advance my status in a community of performance?
  • What do I need to read and learn to keep this going?
  • How do I react when my theological status is threatened?
  • What is my motivation in telling others about my theological reading?
What ought to be for our good, for the good of others, and for the the glory of God ("And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" Mark 12:30) can so easily become an instrument in self-serving idolatry and a club to beat down others.

To treat theological knowledge in this way, as a servant of pride, is to destroy gospel grace. I can never know when I have read enough, that I know enough, so that my status is secure. This false master is one that I can never ever satisfy or please. Therefore my status is always under threat, and I must pervert and misuse good things in order to maintain it. I am confessing that I am accepted (respected?) because of what I know, how much I know, and how my knowledge is viewed by others. How can that be confessed at the same time as the gospel of grace?

There is only one way out of this sinful mess. Christ is enough. His obedient life is enough. His finished work is enough. The imputation of his righteousness is enough. It has all be done by Him for us. Grace has set us free from seeking to establish, maintain and advance our status on the basis of a false righteousness. This includes our abuse of the truth in the sin of serving our intellectual pride. And this grace, therefore, sets us free to serve others for their good and for God's glory. Which is why, as every pastor knows and must keep on learning, Christ has given gifts of Word ministers to build his church (Eph. 4:11-16).

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