Tuesday, March 31, 2009

COMPS6: all of God's people involved in all of God's mission

R. Paul Stevens begins The Other Six Days by asserting the need for all of God’s people to be engaged with theology, rather than theology trickling down from the academic ivory towers and the elevated pulpits to the pews – for Stevens this is “predigested truth without the privilege of dialogue and participational learning”(19). Theology is not only for people when they are gathered in the church on one day, but for when Christians are scattered away from the church on the other six days. Connected to the divide between the theologians and the pew sitters, Stevens dislikes the separate category of “practical theology” because it applies all theology isn’t practical. Stevens central concern is that the laity take back their participation in thinking and living theologically in all facets of their lives.

Stevens is not alone in his desire for the people of God to recapture a biblical view of the People of God, which stands in sharp contrast to the predominate contemporary situation which sees the clergy separated out from the laity, rather than the biblical view of church leadership being among the people of God. A situation that has contributed to many pew sitters having to negotiate the other 6 days of their week with inadequate theology as the pre-packaged, nut-shelled, trickle-down theology most people get doesn’t cut-it in the real world.

A key chapter in Steven’s book is “Calling in a Post-vocational age”. Stevens distinguishes between three different, but overlapping levels of vocational calling: personal; Christian and human. Helpfully, Steven’s contextualises the reformers reaction against medieval monastic personal calls which effectually created two tiers of Christians, the contemplative and the active. Quoting Luther, Steven’s highlights the danger of the two-tier monastic view:
“The idea that the service to God should have only to do with a church altar, singing, reading, sacrifice, and the like is without doubt the worst trick of the devil. How could the devil have led us more effectively astray than by the narrow conception that service to God takes place only in the church and by works therein… The whole world could abound with services to the Lord… not only in churches but also in the home, kitchen, workshop, field.” (77)
Yet, Luther’s view and his well-known exegetical mistake of interpreting 1 Cor 7:17 as a directive to stay in one’s “station in life” can begin “the slippery slide towards the secularization of callings” (77). Stevens notes that Calvin, in contrast to Luther, viewed “‘calling’ mainly to describe the call to salvation or the call into ministry” (79). Stevens view is that the NT isn’t entirely clear on the nature of personal calling, but rather offers four theological perspectives: there is an effective call of Christ to become a disciple; there is a providential call, ie, God uses our family background, education, personality to shape our particular calling; a charismatic call where people are equipped with certain spiritual gifts; and fourth a heart call, perhaps best summarized by the famous Buechner quote “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (82).

The call to Christian vocation is not in dispute. Stevens summarises that OT call language “is used primarily for the people of God who are summoned to participate in God’s grand purpose in the world” (84). Stevens sees Jesus’ call as an “invitation to repent, turn to him, and live for the Kingdom of God” (85).

In discussing the human vocational call, Stevens highlights the tension between those who focus on the creational mandate (Gen. 1:27-30) and those who prefer the Great Commisional mandate (Mt. 28:19-20). Stevens sees this separation as tragic, as it prioritizes God’s mission in the world as separate to evangelism (or at least that is how those who favor the creational mandate see it, in contrast to those who focus on the great commission and only see God’s mission in the world related to evangelism and sanctification). Helpfully, Stevens brings these two mandates back together:
“Salvation is both a rescue operation (recovering our lost vocation in Eden) and a completion project (preparing for the final renewal of creation at the second coming of Jesus). Eschatology is critical to understanding our vocation as Christians in the world.” (90).
Ones work is a key outworking of ones vocational situation. Defining work as “purposeful activity involving mental, emotional or physical energy, or all three, whether remunerated or not” (107), Stevens examines work throughout the scriptures by surveying: the work that God does; work as both blessing and curse; work that God blesses and work he does not; and Jesus as a mason. Stevens concludes “work is much more than a necessity for survival or a means of self-fulfillment; it accomplishes a spiritual good, serving kingdom purposes and drawing us to God” (117).

Stevens frames work in a Trinitarian shape by examining: the Fatherly dimension of work in terms of stewardship and making the creation flourish; the Sons work as Kingdom ministry – both the furtherance of the gospel and the reign of Jesus as Lord of all; the work of the Spirit as empowering and gifting the people of God “to live (and work) by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). Stevens also discusses the goodness of work – for the world, our neighbors and ourselves and in so doing stresses both the extrinsic and intrinsic value of work.

The Other Six Days began by stressing the importance of reclaiming theology for the whole people of God. Stevens fleshes out the implications by speculating about what would happen “if we reinstated the ministry of the whole people of God… it would be like discovering a lost continent… think of a church of two hundred members ministering seven days a week in all the contexts which our sovereign God has placed those members. They do not have to be persuaded or inveigled into going into the world; they are already there” (158). But, what are they there to do? Stevens straps on the wide angle lens to see the churches mission to simply be part of God’s mission in the world, where God is calling people to himself, where God is seeking to redeem structures and bring righteousness, justice and liberation; where God is seeking to change how people think and therefore act; where God is concerned for the whole of his creation (not just the work of the 6th day); where God is seeking to defeat the powers who obstruct the coming of his Kingdom – all with the ultimate goal of God’s intended shalom rest. “The goal is the whole people of God engaging in the whole mission of God in the whole world” (213).

This book dabbles in many of the areas that my Comps research is exploring, ie: what is God doing in the world? How are we as the church gathered and individuals scattered to be part of it? How does our work fit into God’s mission, both in this world and in the new creation to come? Stevens is great, because he brings this conversation into the pews and out into the world where it needs to be. Stevens also brings critiques of others work (eg: Volf), which aids my critique of them and introduces me to new thinkers in various readers.