Translate

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Tomato Vendor's Ministry

Introduction

While motivating me to join my undergraduate theological training, a pastor-friend of mine said, "The pastorate is better than any career in life. It is better to be a pastor than even to be a president." His reasoning was airtight and convincing enough then. He cited the fact that the pastor commits himself to the eternal rather than the temporal well-being of his followers. I agreed with him. I was obviously excited to hear that I was going to college to pursue a calling higher than the presidency. That I could be greater than Obama, in actuality, was no small lure. Later, as I grew in the grace and knowledge of Christ, the prospect of being "greater" than the president started to seem hollow and unsettling. While I was in college, another pastor-friend gave me an opportunity to teach a young adults' group about the Holy Spirit, and, as such, about spiritual gifts. In my study of 1 Corinthians 12, I started to understand more of why a pastorate is not better than a presidency. How can one compare the taste of a chocolate bar to that of a chicken's steak? They are both good in different ways. I would be hard pressed to say which was better. Cristiano Ronaldo used a similar argument during an interview in which he was asked to assess how he compared to Lionel Messi's soccer genius. Said Ronaldo, "You cannot compare a Ferrari with a Porsche..." If you ask me, I think Messi, the Barcelona FC striker, has a slight edge over Ronaldo as shown in the comic image below. :)
Moreover, Messi is a natural soccer star. Ronaldo is a hard worker. He gives a lot of effort to turn out right. In a similar manner, we might argue that chicken has a slight edge over chocolate since the former is a natural food. However, the argument of naturalness is fallacious. It does not really answer the question, but it simply shifts the discussion. Whether or not the chicken is natural does not tell us whether or not it tastes better. Messi's more natural talent does not say whether or not he is a better footballer than Ronaldo. Maybe, as Ronaldo says, they are just Porsche and Ferrari; they are both great howbeit in different ways. As many pro Ronaldo opinions may exist as anti-Ronaldo ones.

At least, since, after I prepared and taught that Bible lesson on spiritual gifts, I do not think the pastoral vocation is better than the presidential one. I think the pastoral vocation is better for my pastor-friends since God has called them to it. The presidency is better than the pastorate for someone who is called to be a president. The man whom God has called to be a pastor sins if he tries to be a president instead. In like manner, the person whom God has called to be a president sins if he attempts to become a pastor instead. In other words, it all depends. It depends on what God has called one to. Whatever God has called you to be is not just better than any other profession. For you, it is the best profession in the world. It is exactly what God created you to be.

Two Birds, One Stone

The tomato vendor, the doctor, the good neighbour, or the lawyer, each has a responsibility to worship God through the specific opportunities that God provides. We typically think of the apostles as those who "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6) with the gospel, but Acts 8:1 and 4 describe a situation where the apostles stayed put in Jerusalem while the rest of the church scattered out of Jerusalem taking the gospel with them. Whereas the apostles were in leadership, and they commanded the respect of all of the church members, they definitely did not turn the world upside down. The turning of the world can only be attributed to God's working through the whole body of Christ's people, not just its leaders.

One time Mr. X, a pastor, was headed home from work. It was so late that the PSVs that he depended on were scarce. He saw another pedestrian walking, headed in his home's direction, and he thought to make friends with this pedestrian so as to walk home together. Together they would be safer in our city which is full of "Nairobbery." After a brief chat to make his acquaintance, X managed to invite the pedestrian to church. X killed two birds with one stone. He walked home a lot more confident than if he had been alone, and he was able to seize the strange opportunity that God provided to do the work of ministry. Two birds, one stone. Does it take a pastor to share the gospel? No. The tomato vendor, the doctor, the lawyer, or just the good neighbour could do exactly what X did. That is ministry. I contend that God has called each Christian, no matter his/her profession, to minister the gospel. Even if one's profession is as ordinary as that of a tomato vendor, God has called us all to be worshipers who participate in the making of other worshipers. God has called us to the ministry of two birds; one stone. You may be a surgeon, a doctor by profession, but God has called you to participate in the Great Physician's mission of restoring sinful hearts to Himself. The house wife who is just a good neighbour is called to show her thirsting neighbour where the Fountain of Living Water is to be found (cf. John 4, especially verse 39). And if this ministry work is true about every Christian, then the pastorate is no better than the presidency as long as the occupants of either office maximise whatever opportunities God brings their way to do the Father's business. Too many people give up what they call "secular" professions when they perhaps should not. To be sure, some of those who give up other professions for the pastorate are right in doing so, but others are simply mistaken when they think that they cannot serve God well unless they are on a local church's payroll.

Some Scriptural Principles

But, you may argue, the pastor does ministry day in day out. I agree that the pastor's role grants him more opportunities to share the gospel, but remember that Christ, our Judge, looked at the widow to whom God had given less material things and said that her pennies were worth more than the paper bills of those who had even more paper bills to spare. She had given her all; God saw that. Christ looked at the percentage of her giving rather than its "weightage." Will He not judge those who maximise their fewer opportunities to participate in evangelistic work by the same standard with which he judged that widow?

Finally, even though some pastors may be evangelists, the pastor's primary role is not necessarily directly evangelistic (cf. 2 Timothy 4:5). A governing text behind the thoughts in this blog post is Ephesians 4:4-7; 11-16. Those graciously gifted to be pastors among Christ's flock are so gifted to equip the saints for the work of ministry (verse 12). It is the saints, and not just the leaders who do the work of the ministry. (Note that the leaders are also included in the category "saints.") A pastor who thinks, without any disclaimers, that the pastoral vocation is better than any other vocation is ignorant at best, and arrogant at worst. The arrogance may be masked if you compare it to a prestigious office like the president's, but can you imagine a pastor who asserts that his office is higher than that of the tomato vendor? Does such a pastor not sound eerily like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. Such reasoning does not work for the unity of the body of Christ, but for the glorifying of one member of Christ's body over the rest (Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4-31).

Conclusion

The tomato vendor's ministry is a ministry of the word, just like her pastor's. Even in light of 1 Corinthians 12:31, I can still say that all spiritual gifts are equal and none is more equal than others. "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory and power forever and ever. Amen" (1 Peter 4:10-11, NIV; the italics are mine, for emphasis).

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Unreformed and Unashamed: Introduction (1 of 3)

Introduction and Preliminary Disclaimers

This blog post is not exactly a thorough introduction to the issues of its subject matter. I understand that the post possibly raises more questions than it answers. It introduces several ideas that are new to many Christians, even many solid Christians, as I have recently discovered. As such, I have included some links to help with a cursory understanding of the issues discussed. Moreover, I intend to follow this post up with, at least, two more posts: one explaining why I am not convinced by Covenant Theology, and the next explaining why I am not convinced of the Regulative Principle. Even though this particular series of blog posts is one I would have preferred not to be writing, I feel obligated to do so as my formally Independent Baptist church takes a reformed bent. I want to be any help to those who might wonder, like I often do, what it means to be an unreformed baptist who is, nonetheless, not unorthodox.

On three fronts, the title of this post can be misleading. Firstly, I am reformed in the sense that Christ has taken from me the heart of stone, and given me new birth by His Spirit. As such, I have been truly reformed by His grace, and I continue to be reformed daily by the sanctifying work of His Spirit.

Secondly, in spite of the way my title might sound to my dear brothers of the reformed tradition within Christianity, I do not view the reformed tradition with any derision whatsoever. I believe that there is a real revival in our day amongst our reformed brethren, and all of God's universal church is benefiting tremendously from this mini revival. For instance, there is a proliferation of books written by reformed authors especially to delineate the sorteriological considerations of Christian theology: The church today desperately (and quite sadly) needs to define what the gospel is, and the reformed brethren are doing a wonderful job producing such resources.

Thirdly, in fact, those who relate closest with me argue that I am reformed, but that I am simply embarrassed by aspects of reformed theology. Moreover, I find myself in the trenches of ministry with many reformed brethren today. My current home church was not reformed when I joined it, but it is becoming more reformed by the day--thanks to the influence of my pastor-friend (and the other elders?). Also, thanks to the migration of several reformed young adults from a friendly reformed baptist church on the opposite side of town from us.

I cannot sing enough praises of the reformed tradition. I am glad that our church is reforming. The reformed bent has already injected new life into us. I have prayed for revival for my church for several years now, and God has chosen to send one with a reformed bent: Praise be to His name!

Why do I call myself unreformed?

I am a baptist. Because we moved a lot as a family, I have been a member at various baptist churches with differing doctrinal positions. For the longest time, I was a Southern Baptist. In fact, it is in Southern Baptist circles that I came to faith in Christ and was immersed in the waters of baptism for obedience to Christ's instruction for a public profession of faith in Him. Sadly though, Southern Baptist churches in all the places where I have lived so far tend to have charismatic leanings. After high school, uncomfortable with the charismatic phenomena at my Southern Baptist church and at the Scripture Union at my boarding school, I started looking for a church that was not all about charismatic hype. I had to wait for slightly over a year before I came across an Independent Baptist church, which had just moved into the neighbourhood. (While I waited, I experimented with several churches.

Ironically, I found one Pentecostal church which was much better at de-emphasising the charismatic phenomena than the Southern Baptist churches of this new neighbourhood. I stayed at the Pentecostal church for most of my waiting period.) In His sovereign orchestration of my life, God did not bring me into contact with any Reformed Baptist churches. (I avoided Presbyterian churches for reasons that we are better off not discussing in this post.) However, I learned Calvinism (and came to appreciate it over Arminianism) courtesy of a love for reading. As I read the systematic theologies written by reformed Christians including Hodge and Berkhof, I had my appetite whetted for reformed theology.

As I delved deeper still into books, journals, and other literature with a reformed leaning--specifically Reformed Baptist literature--I came to conclude that, apart from the solas and other foundational aspects of the Protestant Reformation, there are three basic tenets that define Reformed Baptists: The Doctrines of Grace (summarised in the acronym TULIP), Covenant Theology, and a Regulative Principle of church life. I embraced the Doctrines of Grace, but I have not embraced any of the other two tenets of reformed baptism to-date. The time I spent at the Bible college that I attended in Zambia served to reinforce and solidify my leanings against Covenant Theology and against the Regulative Principle.

Therefore, to the extent that Covenant Theology and the Regulative Principle define the reformed identity, I am unreformed. I consider myself unreformed because my theology is not defined by the 1689 Baptist Confession. I have some quarrels with the Westminster Confession beyond simply the question on baptism. Therefore, I have these same quarrels with the 1689 confession since it "is essentially the Westminster Confession of Faith reworded as it pertains to baptism," according to GotQuestions.org (accessed on 22 October 2014). In light of these facts, I hope you can begin to understand why I call myself unreformed.

Why do I have to say that I am unashamed to be unreformed?

The reformed baptist movement is larger than the Independent Baptist movement, and it is not rare to find Reformed Baptist adherents, be it laymen, preachers, or scholars, sound as though they are the only ones on the right track in terms of relationship with God--like Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 19:10, 18). It seems like the rest of us who are not fully convinced of the reformed identity ought to somehow blush with shame. Honestly, in such a day when the Reformed Baptist movement is doing innumerable exploits for God's Kingdom, I am often tempted to blush over my audacity to question what the movement stands for.

However, recognising that my conscience is bound solely to God's word, I have to remind myself constantly that I cannot be swept by the tide of reformed baptism's Covenant Theology and its Regulative Principle unless I am convinced of these things from the Scriptures, which is the way I was convinced of TULIP. I have to be unashamed (and unashamable) in my stance against Covenant Theology and the Regulative Principle since, as far as I can tell, this stance of mine is based on the Scriptures.

The quote below, which I took from Jonathan Merritt's article, aptly summarises why I feel the necessity to add to this post the idea that I am unashamed to be unreformed.

"Sometimes it seems as if Calvinists view themselves as judge, jury, and executioner of the Christian movement at large—determining who is faithful and not, who believes the gospel and who doesn’t, who is in and who is out. (One might call to mind John Piper’s iconic and infamous “Farewell, Rob Bell” tweet.) Some within the movement talk of God’s sovereignty while seeking to control the destinies of other Christians and often speak of man’s depravity with a haughtiness that undermines it."

--For the full article, follow this link.

Why, then, do I embrace the reformed concept of five-point Calvinism?

Because I believe in Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Persevering Saints (summed in the acronym TULIP), I sound and feel like a reformed baptist to those who are close to me. It seems to me that TULIP is the foremost defining aspect of reformed theology today. Since I shout heartfelt amens to it, it is understandable why someone would find it difficult to believe that I am not actually reformed. In fact, if TULIP is all that being reformed is about, then forget the title of this blog post, I am reformed. This reasoning, however, betrays the fact that we are assuming that Calvin (and the reformed tradition) invented the, so called, doctrines of grace.

When we argue that someone who believes the doctrines of grace must be reformed, we are saying in essence that non-reformed people cannot see these points in the Scriptures unless they are part of the reformed camp. In other words, if we really believe that TULIP is Scriptural, we ought to say that every Christian should believe TULIP whether or not they are reformed, rather than saying that anyone who believes TULIP is, therefore, reformed. R. C. Sproul refuses to equate reformed theology to TULIP, and he is definitely an authority on things reformed. I believe TULIP because I believe that the Scriptures teach it. C. H. Spurgeon said so too. I thank God for Calvin, whom God used to expound it, but I have no reason to think of TULIP as Calvin's invention, unless someone convinces me so, in which case I would abandon it.

Honestly, I have no reason to think that I cannot embrace the "doctrines of grace" unless I am a true son of the reformed tradition. Moreover, I am obviously in more agreement with reformed theology beyond just TULIP. The points of our agreement far outweigh those of our difference: That is why I consider them Christians, and Christians with whom I can do all kinds of Christian ministry. In fact, the points of my disagreement with reformed theology are so nuanced (they might sound facetious) that it quite fair for someone to accuse me of being reformed and only slightly embarrassed by aspects of reformed theology.

Conclusion

So I conclude this blog post more in agreement than disagreement with my reformed baptist brethren. (The next two posts in this three-post series will be squarely focused on the points of disagreement though.) If nothing else, I pray that this series may be a challenge for those among my readers who have not come to any conclusion concerning these matter to think more about them and to gradually come to some form of conclusion over them. They are important matters which govern how we understand the Scriptures. Both sides of this discussion agree on what the Scriptures are. However, there is considerable disagreement over how the Scriptures ought to be handled. That causes the gravely important differences, differences that we dare not simply ignore.

See you next week for part II.