How can the church partner with the world while maintaining its identity? By imitating Jesus’ Changing Water into Wine. Lessons from Thomas Aquinas.

“All truth is God’s truth.”

I can’t tell you how many times I heard this while I was in seminary. And that was a good thing because I needed to hear it. I had spent the years leading up to seminary developing my understanding of truth that was pretty much limited to what the Bible (or at least my interpretation of the Bible) had to say. Any claims to truth outside of the Bible were suspect for me.

I even remember a time in a class I took at USask on Religious Perspectives on Death and Dying when I had to comment (in a test) on the validity of the fictional Death of Ivan Illich to my understanding of death and dying. My reply was that since it was fiction it wasn’t true! Wise Professor Robert Kennedy pointed out that truth can be found in a variety of areas of life including fictional accounts.

And it appears this debate isn’t all that new. The other day I took a look at Mitchell Atencio’s interview Why Nathan Cartagena Teaches Critical Race Theory to Evangelicals with Nathan Cartagena on Sojourners and saw a great idea from Thomas Aquinas.

In 1261, a few years before I went to seminary, Thomas Aquinas wrote a commentary on Boethius’ On The Trinity. Apparently some agreed with my early ideas — that blending God’s Truth with rational truths somehow muddies the mixture. Article 3 of Super Boethium De Trinitate by Thomas Aquinas answers this question in a very interesting way:

“5. It may be said: No conclusive argument can be drawn from figurative speech, as the Master (Peter Lombard) says. Dionysius also says in his letter to Titus that symbolic theology has no weight of proof, especially when such interprets no authority. Nevertheless it can be said that When one of two things passes into the nature of another, the product is not considered a mixture except when the nature of both is altered. Wherefore those who use philosophical doctrines in sacred Scripture in such a way as to subject them to the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but change water into wine.”

Part of the problem that I faced in the early years of my theological formation was that I somehow believed that the world was divided into two parts: Sacred and Secular. As as young Christian I was warned about the dangers of the world — the danger that I would become worldly. This came out in many areas, including concepts like Christian music, Christian schools and colleges, and Christian bookstores. There was also the idea that people needed to leave the world and join the church. Interestingly there was never an idea that through my influence the world would become holy.

How can we apply Aquinas’ concepts of changing water to wine to the whole sacred-secular debate? The sacred-secular debate keeps the two worlds apart because of fear of contamination — but a contamination that always goes from good to bad. Aquinas says that in order for two ideas to mix that they both need to change. When it comes to God’s truth however, the end result is not a mixture of good and bad but a transformation of the bad into good, much in the same way that Jesus changed water into wine.

So, that brings us to current issues where this can be applied. I can think of three examples. When I was younger the bad guy was psychotherapy. Psychotherapy was bad for reasons that I can’t remember. Fortunately today I have personally benefitted from people who have been successful in blending the truths of God that can be found in psychotherapy with the truths of God found in scripture and have applied those truths into my life.

Christians have also had a love-hate relationship with science throughout the years. Some have suggested that vaccine hesitancy among some Christians is a direct result of the religion-science debate. The argument seems to go along the lines of, “Science promotes evolution that directly goes against the creation accounts of the Bible. If then scientists tell us that vaccines are ok that must mean that they aren’t ok.” What we as Christians often forget, though, is that the early scientists were in fact men and women of faith who desired to know more about God’s creation and started an in-depth study of it.

There has been a lot of talk of late in the church about Critical Race Theory. And that is in fact with the Nathan Cartagena interview is about. The main objection appears to be something like, “CRT is bad because it is Marxism.” Once again the fear of the world influencing the church rather than the church influencing the world rears its ugly head. What we often forget is that justice is one of the key aspects of the Kingdom of God but since it has been neglected so much by the church we need the expertise of those who have thought about justice issues in depth.

Of course I am not advocating an uncritical approach to these issues. As Aquinas himself tells us to “subject [rational philosophies] to the service of faith.” But what I am advocating is that Christians tap every resource available as we seek to turn the water of the world into the wine of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, establishing the values of the kingdom of God, serving God and neighbour, and testifying to God’s truth.

After all, Jesus promises that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the church. Why should we act as if it already has?

Feedback is always welcome.

Sharing is what friends do.

Image by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash.

Church, modified.

Church.

It doesn’t matter what you add to the word or how you modify it, it still means the same basic thing.

  • Underground church is a church that remains as hidden as possible due to persecution.
  • Local Church is a church in one community.
  • House church is a church that meets in someone’s house (or office, or third place).
  • Universal church is the church that has existed, exists today, and will exist in the future.
  • Indigenous church is a church that is contextualized to a certain society.
  • Persecuted church is a church that is being persecuted by another religion or by the government.
  • Mega Church is a really big church.
  • Cell Church is a really small church.
  • Online church is the online portion of a local church, whether live or prerecorded.
  • Virtual church is where every aspect of the church exists in the virtual world.
  • Live-streamed church is when a church broadcasts it’s Sunday morning services live online.
  • In-person church is when people gather for face-to-face meetings.
  • Church at home is when families worship at home.

But guess what? It’s all still church.

So what does that mean?

We should continue to be the church regardless of which modifier we pick.

  • We should continue to proclaim the good news the Jesus is our king.
  • We should live out the values of the Kingdom of God.
  • We should love God and love our neighbour.
  • We should bear witness to the truth.

How will you be the church today?

Feedback is always welcome!

Image by Skull Kat on Unsplash.

Nightmares vs Daydreams: Which do you think are more dangerous?

People often said when I was younger that I lived in a dream world — and that was true. I did spend a lot of time dreaming of an imaginary world. It is strange, however, that daydreams are often thought of as being a trivial waste of time. “It’s better,” they say, “to live in the real world.” What is also interesting is that we often think of nightmares as dangerous We worry about nightmares. We try to stop nightmares. We even make movies about them that frighten us into even more nightmares!

In reality, we should really spend more time concentrating on daydreams. Nightmares, after all, only last for a few brief moments. It’s the dreams that we have while awake that are truly dangerous because we can dream them for a lifetime, and in the end make them come true. 

As TE Lawrence says, 

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

Here are my daydreams:

  • I dream of a world where the rule and leadership of Jesus makes the world a better place. A place where the poor hear good news, where prisoners are made free, where the blind can see, where the oppressed are set free, and where the Lord looks with favour on all people. 
  • I dream of a world where the values of the world are the values of God’s kingdom. 
  • I dream of a world where we love each other like we love ourselves. This is best expressed by the Tagalog word kapwa, or “shared being.” 
  • I dream of a world where the truths we shape is the Truth that is revealed to everyone by God, applied to our own cultural and local contexts. 

It is easy to dream such dreams. It is harder to make these dreams come true. But as the old saying goes, “Begin with the end is sight.” 

Keep on daydreaming!

Photo by Jonathan Mabey on Unsplash.

Anthony Bradley’s Functional church made practical –> On “loving the city” long-term

Functional church anyone? This guy (Anthony Bradley) has got the idea right. But not just the idea, the practice that goes with it! He doesn’t care about forms and appearances but is solely concerned with church engaging society. I like it a lot (even if it is scary).

A functional church really has to get down to this level — the behind-the-scenes-not-pretty-but-really-where-the-problem-is kind of stuff.

It’s one thing to set up a place to get together and talk but it is quite another to take a stand and try to root out some really issues.

Here is the link to the article:

On “loving the city” long-term (in contrast to well-intentioned hipster, neo-paternalistic versions) – The Institute.

What things would you add to the list?

Here’s How 1 Church Defines Functionality

Of course in a blog entitled “The Functional Church Blog” it might be a good idea to add real-life examples of churches that are acting in functional ways. One of those churches is locally known as Hope Christian Fellowship Transformational Ministries (HCFTM). Here’s how this church defines functionality. They think that it is so important that they decided to add these four points to their statement of faith.

1. Proclamation is HCFTM’s way of declaring the Good News of Jesus Christ to all people. We declare Jesus as Lord and Saviour of our community and we recognise His central role in transforming the world through intentional evangelism, communicated effectively in a culturally-relevant way by people who have themselves experienced the transforming power of God.

2. Service is HCFTM’s way of showing the love of God to people both inside and outside of our faith community though acts of mercy, relief rehab and development. We will be engaging in educational ministry services such as establishing schools of all levels. We will be delivering free medical-dental clinics. We will be conducting livelihood programs for the poor of our communities.

3. Truth-telling is HCFTM’s way of being God’s prophetic voice by engaging society with biblical truth through participation in public advocacy, social justice, value transformation, promotion of freedom, engagement in the public square, involvement in market places, and the transformation of public perception through education, evangelism, church planting, intercessory prayer, and discipleship.

4. Community-building is HCFTM’s way of revealing the joys of the kingdom of God to people outside of our faith community through active participation with like-minded faith communities, active cooperation with like-minded groups, and active accountability in both the religious and secular world. All this is typified with the Christian attitude of unity in matters essential, liberty in matters non-essential, and charity in all other matters.

Basically HCF is saying that without these 4 functions, a church is not doing what it is supposed to do. Do you agree? What would you add? What would you subtract?

 

Sometimes I Wish I Had A Magic Wand

In the popular series of movies Harry Potter, I observed an interesting phenomenon. Every time a character wants to perform some mundane task, such as packing their clothes, closing curtains, etc., all they do is wave their magic wand and the task is instantly done. To be honest, this seems a little bit cool. I mean who wouldn’t want to be able to finish those tasks in such an easy and painless way? I would probably use it for washing dishes and washing the car.

But then I got to thinking about my own relationship with God. Why doesn’t he give me that power? Why can’t I, who have been a part of his family for my whole life, just wave a wand (or perhaps just say a prayer) and have whatever it is instantly done? Of course, some of us have experienced God’s power in this way but this experience is by no means universal.

There must be something in those little tasks that God still wants me to experience. There must be something about washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, packing my clothes, or washing my car that somehow helps me in my relationship with God.

It reminds me of a line in the Star Trek movie Insurrection where one of the characters says something like, “We believe that when you make a machine to do a man’s job, you take something away from that man.”

What do I take away from myself when I try to find the easy way out?

What times do you wish for a magic wand? How can doing that thing yourself help you relate to God in a richer way?

Welcome To The Functional Church Blog

You may have noticed the new name for the blog. I decided that since most of what I was writing was related to the church and her functions as opposed to our family’s ministry it might be best to change the name to reflect that.

So what is meant by functional church?

A Functional Church goes beyond merely looking like a church; it is a church that does what it is intended to do.

Take for example a key. I can look at a key and know for sure that it is a key. Why? Because it has the marks of a key: a place to hold onto, a place that gets inserted into a lock, bumps and grooves (are these technical terms?), and perhaps a hole for attaching it to a keychain. If it has the marks of a key then it is really a key. But if I leave that key in my pocket and never use it for its intended purpose, then, even though it is really a key, it is not functional. I can even use a key as a paperweight, as a makeshift knife for opening the plastic wrap on CD cases, or even to scratch the silver stuff off a prepaid cellphone card so I can load my phone. But even though the key proves useful in these situations, it is still not being used for its intended purpose. So then, how do I make the key functional? By using it for it’s intended purpose, namely opening locks.

Initially we have identified four Marks of the Church and four Functions of the church. (We will start with these as a benchmark with the understanding that they may be changed, moved, or eliminated.)

Four Marks of the Church (what the church is while gathered): Worship, Word, Sacrament, & Governance.

Four Functions of the Church (what the church does while scattered): Community (Koinonia or Building God’s Kingdom), Proclamation (Kerygma), Truth-Telling (Marturia), & Service (Diakonia).

Of course this concept of Functional Church is a work in progress. I initially heard of it from the work of Dr. Augustine “Jun” Vencer, VP for Leadership Development at DAWN. Since then a team of us at South East Asian Theological Schools (SEATS) have been trying to distill this into local churches in South East Asia. We look forward to interacting with you on this as we develop this concept in a biblical and practical way.

Building the Kingdom: Essentials vs Non-Essentials

Had an interesting discussion in our School of Ministry yesterday. We were talking about how the church is to be an example of the Kingdom of God on earth by exhibiting its values and by being a true community.

Of course, our discussion eventually ended up at the old axiom: “in essential matters, unity; in non-essential matters, liberty; in all other matters, charity.” My colleague, William Camba, pointed out that we don’t really seem to have trouble over the essential matters – we aren’t always discussing within our churches whether there really is a trinity or if Jesus is God or not. We do, however, seem to get caught up on the non-essentials – what colour to paint the walls, what kind of music to play, or what clothes we should wear during worship. The thing is there is also a distinct lack of liberty and love expressed during these times. William illustrated his point with a personal story about how he was recently distracted while attending a conference because the speaker was wearing flip-flops. “Why isn’t he wearing shoes?” was the question going through his mind. Upon his observation of the reactions of others to the slippers (ie no one else seemed to be offended), he eventually began to ask himself whether the problem was really his own and perhaps he was making something an essential that really isn’t essential.

The class then went on to discuss that most contentious of church issues, namely music. To be honest I wasn’t really happy with where the rest of the discussion and feel that I wasn’t able to wrap up the day on a positive note. After, however, a lot of thought, I realise we really need to have a way of determining what is essential and what is not so that we can avoid conflict in these areas in the future and so that we can practice the liberty and charity that we want to.

So what makes some things essential and other things non-essential?

Other than certain foundational theological truths that we can’t mess with, we are surrounded by a vast amount of stuff that can be classified as personal preferences – the songs we sing, the words we use, the Bible version we prefer, the clothes we wear, etc. How can we navigate this quagmire?

The key is that we need to return to the essentials of the church. For example, the Bible describes a church that is not merely to exist but to function properly. Some call this being missional but for the past few years we at SEATS have been talking about the Functional Church. Our churches are to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ (kerygma). They are also to exhibit the values of the Kingdom of God (koinonia). They are to be centers of service to both God and Humans (diakonia), and they are to bear the truth, even to the point of death (marturia).

In determining if something is essential, we need to return to these basic functions. Take the earlier example of music in the church. When we think about being functional in proclaiming the Good News we need to see what is essential. It is essential that the Good News be proclaimed in our public singing but the form that public singing takes is not essential. As long as it gets the job done in the best way possible.

We also need to declare the truth through our music. The form, however, is non-essential. As long as it is effective in declaring the truth then we should do it. If it is not, then we need to modify or change it.

Is it possible to serve through music? As long as the music is functional then its form is secondary. The same goes for proclaiming the values of the kingdom.

You may have noticed that forms are very much based upon societal norms. Keeping music as the example, if we want to reach fans of emo, then we can use emo. If we want to reach fans of country music then use country. If rockers, then rock. And on and on it goes. What is clear is that there is no longer only one societal norm.

So how does the church deal with these issues? One way is by having some kind of multiple services, each one targeted for a different society. (Of course, if you want to check out a different society’s service, prepare to misunderstand it ☺).
Another option for churches is to use the following statement: “We are not doing this particular thing for you – it is for (name of target).” This must be combined with a follow-up: “This is what we are doing for you.”

Paul saw his acting like a Jew or acting like a Greek as nonessentials. He didn’t force people to conform to his preferences but rather conformed to theirs. In light of Paul’s attitude, we need to have the following conversation in our churches:

What is our goal at our church? To have newcomers conform to our list of preferences or to conform to their preferences so they might more easily learn the essentials/become disciples? How can our _______ best fulfill this function? What forms need to be modified? What forms need to be changed? What forms need to be redeemed?

What are your essentials? I encourage the members of SEATS Schools of Ministry to give their opinions on the discussion board on the SEATS Facebook Page.

But just remember: liberty and charity.