Are we responsible for the outcomes of our Christian ministry? Part 4: The blindspot of theologically justified ministry practice

Part 1: Agency, Power and Responsibility

Part 2: Degrees of responsibility

Part 3: Power, responsibility and Christian ministry

Appendix: the cultural blindspot of theologically justified ministry practices and preferences

  • A particular sticking point for cultural adjustment and ministry effectiveness is rigorously thought-through ministry practices.
  • Traditionalists, whether ‘high’ or ‘low’ church often have very rigorous theological or ethical reasons for their various practices and traditions, that make them unwilling to adjust or change for the sake of adjusting to a new cultural context or for some practical purpose.
  • Examples might include:
    • No musical accompaniment, only organ, simple acoustic music, full band (and how loud the full band is!)
    • Wearing suit and tie to church meeting, wearing smart casual, wearing shorts and thongs.
    • Sombre ‘reverant’ demeanour, casual but ‘discerning’ demeanour, effervescent and raising hands while singing.
    • Preacher in pulpit in clothes that convey seriousness of the role, slightly polished preacher in casual clothes on a stage, self-effacing preacher on the flat level with the congregation interacting with the congregation.
  • This is clear to us when we are analysing ‘old traditions’, but the same thing can happen with new patterns of ministry practice that we have arrived at through theological reflection… but which are not themselves necessarily biblical.
  • In this process is that we can ‘baptise’ our culture or personal preference.
  • These things can every serve as important ‘boundary markers’ that define those with whom we agree,
  • We can also ‘curse’ those from different cultures for whom certain practices don’t have the same connotations as our theological practice traditions say they have.
  • We need to hold our extrapolations and inferences from Scripture more loosely than Scripture itself.

 

Are we responsible for the outcomes of our Christian ministry? Part 3: Power, responsibility and Christian ministry

Part 1: Agency, Power and Responsibility

Part 2: Degrees of responsibility

Section 3: Power, responsibility and gospel ministry

 

  1. Application of power, agency, responsibility and duty to the ministry of the gospel

7.1 Limits to our responsibility and accountability

  • There are 4 ways in which we are unable to perfectly take full responsibility or be held entirely accountable for our ministry activity and outcome:
  • “If God wills” — God, as the sovereign ruler of the world is in ultimate, providential control of all things that take place in church and ministry — we cannot do anything in ministry that is not a gift from him and in his sovereign will.
  • “As much as people are willing” — Because ministry involves people, we are unable to predict or control their beliefs and behaviour.
  • “As much as is possible” — Because ministry takes place in this complex and fallen world, we are unable to predict and control what might happen which will influence our ministry activities.
  • “According to God’s election and intervention” — because conversion and genuine spiritual maturity requires the miraculous work of God’s Spirit, we are unable to bring it about apart from his sovereign will.

 

7.2 Human Causality in Ministry

  • There are many duties and outcomes associated with Christian ministry that do not depend on God’s supernatural, regenerating and sanctifying word: managing church finances and property, recruiting ministry team leaders, inviting non-Christians to attend Christian events, playing music that is appropriate accompaniment, speaking in a manner which is clear and comprehensible and engaging.
  • In such matters, our responsibility is limited by all the factors mentioned above: our ability, intention and duty. For God in his providential will, through natural forces and other human decisions, contributes to the outcomes in ways we cannot control.
  • As in all things in life, including our daily bread, we rightly call on God to bless us in prayer, realising that apart from his general grace sustaining us in all we do and all we have become, we cannot do anything or achieve anything.
  • Nevertheless, this is different from the intervening, supernatural, saving grace of election, regeneration and sanctification. We often blur our talk about God’s general grace with God’s saving grace. And so we might talk as if persuading someone to come to church is as completely outside of our human control as much as new birth is completely outside of our human control.

 

7.3 Human Causality in Conversion

  • Only God’s supernatural work can enable a sinner to call Jesus Lord, to truly repent and believe. This is the work of the Spirit.
  • However, God’s regenerating accompanies the preaching of gospel and enables conscious human response to the gospel. The sinner hears it, understands it, is persuaded and convicted by it, recognises its glory and delights in it. These are the appropriate human responses to the truths of the gospel.
  • The process of conversion does not operate separately from human listening, comprehension, and persuasion, through some kind of direct revelation. Rather, it operates through a sinner being enabled to be understand and be persuaded by a comprehensible and persuasive communication of the gospel.
  • When God shines his light in our heart to see the gospel, we are able to see, understand and respond to the gospel as it truly is. In that sense, his illuminating work removes the barriers to us seeing that gospel as it truly is, not merely human words, but the word of God.
  • 1Corinthians chapters 1 to 2 does not contradict this. For this passage does not forbid any use of wisdom or rhetoric, but rather a proud, worldly rhetoric, form and technique, based on human power and vanity. Likewise, 2 Corinthians chapter 4 does not forbid the use of thoughtful persuasion, but rather forbids any methods which are deceptive or manipulative.
  • To bring about the calling of his elect, then, God providentially brings them into contact with the clear and persuasive preaching of the gospel, and supernaturally regenerates them to be able to receive it as such.
  • God may choose to work through a combination of supernatural and providential means to make gospel preaching that is not the most intelligent, articulate, compelling or attractive nevertheless effective for conversion. Persuasion does not depend entirely on perfect logic, social status or rhetorical skill.
  • Therefore, we are responsible to a certain extent for the many things we do to bring about the outcome of people coming into contact with the gospel (invitation, promotion, mobilising Christians), and we are also responsible to a certain extent for how clear and persuasive our presentation of the gospel is, which brings about the outcome of understanding, repentance and faith.

 

7.4 Human Causality in Spiritual Maturity

  • Our growth in godliness is only possible by the inward work of the Holy Spirit, as he continually renews us, overcomes our natural sinful thoughts and desires, and deepens our capacity to know, love and obey God.
  • Unlike conversion, however, Christians are more actively involved in this process. We work as God works powerfully in us, as Philippians 2 says, as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling as God works in us.
  • Therefore, we are responsible for our own godliness to a certain extent, even as we pray that God continues to work powerfully in us.
  • We are also responsible to a certain extent for the outcome of others growing in godliness, for are a given the duty or teaching, warning, urging and encouraging others in the church to live lives worthy of the calling we have received.

 

Conclusion

  • Avoid a naïve pattern of ministry thinking and planning which thinks we can entirely control all the outcomes of ministry. This can lead to
    • trusting in current human technique and reason that is inadequate.
    • The risk of putting more focus on current matters of technique and reason rather than the clear emphasis of Scripture on preaching, prayer and love.
    • Discouragement for those seeing little fruit from their ministry, when there are many worldly and supernatural matters beyond their control.
    • Boasting and pride among those seeing much fruit in their ministry, thinking that their wisdom and skill has entirely produced the fruit of their ministry.
  • Avoid a naïve pattern of ministry thinking and planning which downplays or denies our influence on the outcomes of ministry. This can lead to
    • justifying negligence or laziness in ministry.
    • The risk of not putting appropriately diligent effort into learning what matters of knowledge and technique might help the work of ministry.
    • Strangely celebrating ministry work that is ‘intuitive’ and ‘organic’ and ‘muddles’ along, even if this hampers effective ministry.
    • Strangely judging ministry work that is deliberate and careful on practical matters, even if its overall doctrine, ministry practice and ethics is good and right.
  • Maintain God’s supremacy in all things, so that our contribution to his work is always considered supplementary and dependent upon his past grace, providential work and supernatural operation. We are not equal partners with God in the work and outcomes of ministry, but instruments in his purposes.

 

 

Are we responsible for the outcomes of our Christian ministry? Part 2: Degrees of responsibility

Part 1: Agency, Power and Responsibility

Section 2: Three degrees to which we are responsible for things

 

  1. We are responsible for things that we cause

There are three ways to describe the degree to we are responsible for the results of our actions. The first of which is our causal responsibility.

  • We are responsible according to our power. There are some things that we could said to be ‘responsible for’ in the simple sense that we caused them, whether we intended to or not. You could say we are responsible for our miniscule gravitational pull in this simplest sense, or responsible for the sound we make when we sneeze, or responsible for the unintended consequences of our words, or responsible for an amazing basketball shot achieved by total fluke, or a terrible accident that we were involved in.
  • All of these things were caused by our body, words or actions. This is what we could call ‘causal responsibility’. At times certain rights or duties might arise from things caused in this way: I might still claim any profit that comes from things (or be held liable for things) caused in this unintentional way.
  • But there are two limits to this responsibility: Firstly, I am only responsible to the extent I was the cause. The effects of my actions might be magnified by accidental/providential factors, or by the contributions of other people and forces, well beyond my contribution.
  • Secondly, I am responsible to a lesser extent if I did not intend or forsee the effect. I am less worthy of credit and praise, and less culpable of wrongdoing because of the unintended nature of my influence.

 

  1. We are responsible according to our deliberate agency

The second way to describe our responsibility is according to our deliberation intentions.

  • But it is something more significant to say we are responsible according to our deliberate intention and our ability. This is the broadest kind of moral responsibility. It means we are to be credited with having done this or that, whether that thing was right, wrong or somewhat more morally neutral.
  • Likewise, I may deliberately contribute to causing something or producing something. And because I made this thing take place I can receive credit or profit from it or blame or punishment for it in one way or another. Several things qualify the degree to which I am responsible for things in this category.
  • Firstly, not everything I might choose to do is a moral duty (the final category) and so I am not accountable for my neglect or failure to do something or failure cause something that I was not bound to do it in the first place. I am not obliged to give to the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and so I am not accountable for my failure to do so.
  • Secondly, I am responsible for my actions, separate from the intended result. I can take credit for trying hard, or performing well, even if the intended result didn’t come about. Likewise, I can be criticised for a lacklustre performance in managing a project, even if the end result was largely unaffected by my failure.
  • Thirdly, I am only responsible for my performance and for the end result to the degree to which I actually contributed towards it. If I preach someone else’s sermon, I am only responsible for the choice of the sermon and the delivery of the sermon, not the content itself. Or success in business, for example, is a combination of hard work and luck. So then, my claim of responsibility for business success should only be in proportion to how much hard work contributed to my success.
  • Fourthly, my responsibility is qualified by my deliberate intention. Good actions or results might be produced by bad motives or simply by ignorance. To succeed as something out of envy is less admirable than to succeed at something with pure motives. To attempt to do something impossible because of foolishness is worth of criticism.

 

  1. We are responsible according to our duty

Thirdly, explicit duty and legitimate authority makes us responsible in a different way again.

  • A narrower form of responsibility still is responsibility according to duty. In the case of a moral command, or a duty created by a contract, relationship or circumstance of some kind, I am bound to say certain words or perform certain actions and even foster certain attitudes and patterns of thought. Moral duties bring with them extra burdens of accountability than the other forms of responsibility.
  • In the case of moral duties, I am not only responsible for what I actually do, but also accountable for my failure to fulfil my obligations. In this sense a duty is different to other kinds of optional and non-binding actions.
  • Also, I can properly be held responsible for moral duties that I am unable to successfully fulfil because of my sinful nature and human limitation. Humans in slavery to sin are still accountable for their failure to believe in God’s one and only Son. Both partners to a marriage contract are still responsible for every minor failure to love the other consistently, even though their sinfulness made some failure inevitable.
  • Despite this reality, it remains true that something can only be a moral duty for someone it they have the power to fulfil the kind of thing it is, even if their will is unable and unwilling to choose to do this particular thing because of their fallen state. Human beings are responsible to trust and obey God in all things, and were created to be able to trust and obey God, even though sin has made this impossible for us in our current state. By contrast, we cannot be held morally responsible for not feeding the entire population of the planet.
  • I am responsible for the outcomes towards which my moral duties aim only in proportion to my ability to bring about these results. Most moral duties seek to cause a good outcome of some kind in the world: to give money which relieves someone’s physical need, to discipline children so that they will live in a wise way, to excommunicate an unrepentant Christian so that they might come to repentance, to preach the gospel so that people will believe. But although my words or actions are instrumental in these goals being achieved, I am only responsible for these outcomes to the degree to which my action is able to cause them.
  • All moral duties are also measured by intention and motivation, so that a good action that produces a good result might still be deserving of some condemnation if it was performed in bad faith.

 

Are we responsible for the outcomes of our Christian ministry? Part 1: Agency, Power and Responsibility

We should urge ministers of the gospel to be faithful in the basic duties of their ministry: godliness, truthfulness and hard work. More than this, we should urge them to fulfil these duties with great concern and diligence: to strive to grow in godliness, to do their best to be a master workman who correctly handles the word of truth, to speak boldly and persuasively and to work with wisdom and skill. And we should pray that ministers of the gospel be moved by deep and earnest desire to see God glorified through the gracious salvation of as many sinners as possible through the preaching of the gospel, and as many Christians as possible built to maturity and mobilised in ministry.

The Scripture clearly teaches ministers are responsible for their faithfulness to the task: in godliness and truth and zealous endurance. We are even responsible for the quality of our work. But to what extent is a minister of the gospel responsible for the results of their ministry? It is right for them to consider themselves somehow accountable for the fruit of their efforts? If we believe this is true in a qualified way — ‘to some extent’ or ‘under God’ — then how is this responsibility qualified exactly? To what extent are ministers of the gospel responsible?

Section 1: Comments on power, accountability responsibility

  1. The limits of our power and so of our responsibility

 

  • God is ultimately the only one who can grant new life, and so we can’t make people become Christians: this is ultimately God’s work.
  • Even on more everyday level of life in this world — encouraging Christians to attend a conference, selling vacuum cleaners, parenting children — humans have their own conscious life, and we cannot fully predict, let alone control their beliefs and behaviour.
  • In fact, even when it comes to the inanimate world — of farming or basic health care for example — this world is not only complex and unpredictable but also fallen and disordered.
  • So we should acknowledge see the limits of our power and our responsibility to say ‘If God wills’ (James 4). It could lead to despair and discouragement, or pride and boasting, if we assumed that everything was in the scope of the power of our will.

 

  1. Our words and actions have influence on the world

It nevertheless remains true that we are able to have influence on the world:

  • We can choose to act or not to act, we can move physical objects, persuade and coerce people, preach the gospel and pray.
  • The Bible commands us to be godly and pure in all our thoughts and actions, exhorts to many and varied acts of worship to God and love to our neighbour. We are responsible for these outcomes in our own hearts, minds and lives.
  • With regard to the work of the gospel, we are commanded to share in the preaching of the gospel with the goal of that many might be saved, that the church will be built, that we might save ourselves and our hearers. We are also exhorted to make the most of every opportunity, and to follow the example of the apostle Paul who does all things by all means, to serve this work.

 

  1. We are accountable to the commands and exhortations of God

And we are accountable to God for our actions:

  • We will be judged for our lives lived in response to the gospel — to expose a false profession of faith, expose where we fell short of the calling of our genuine conversion, to give further evidence of the genuineness of our conversion and even to provide grounds for rewards of God’s pleasure and glory and our honour and joy.
  • We will also be judged for the faithfulness of our service in the kingdom — whether we build with the good materials of sound doctrine and godly conduct, whether we diligent in the work entrusted to us — and such judgment will be to our glory or shame. We are therefore in some sense responsible for our intentions and actions.
  • More still, we will be praised for our part for the good results that come because of our actions — it is right for us to rejoice and receive glory and rewards in heaven for those who are converted and matured through the work of our ministry and for those whom we fed and clothed when they were hungry, cold and naked. There is a fitting praise, glory and reward attributed to us for our limited role in these outcomes.
  • And we will also be judged in part for the results of our actions — for causing Christ’s little ones to stumble or for destroying Christ’s temple, the church. Even though we are not entirely responsible for the sins of others, we contribute to their temptation or deception and so are rightly condemned for our limited role in these outcomes.

 

StartUp Podcast on Church Planting — Part 4: Homosexuality and Christianity

Part 1: There’s lots to like

Part 2: General ways it misses the mark

Part 3: Hell and Calvinism


Homosexuality, same sex attractive, same sex marriage

It’s unsurprising this is one of the topics covered… but it is surprising how gently and respectfully this topic is handled. It’s impressive that they chose a church planter who hold to a biblical sexual ethic and assume that this is normal among evangelical churches — rather than somehow claiming that this is a fringe, extremist position and that mainstream Christians don’t hold to a sexual ethic.

But what was curious about this part of the discussion was how the journalist, Eric, considered it a confusing inconsistency for a pastor to love and accept practising homosexuals, to welcome them to church, to even support their ability to marry in a secular society… and yet not believe that Christians ought to engage in homosexual sex.

This is revealing of a general disbelief that such a position is coherent, defensible or liveable. But again, as with other issues I’ve touched on in previous instalments in this blog series, it seems that this strongly reflects where journalist Eric Mennel’s own thinking is at.

At least as he’s quoted in this episode, church planter AJ Smith is not sharp and clear on key distinctions:

  • between sexual orientation and sexual practice.
  • Between accepting and loving someone and agreeing with their sexual lifestyle.
  • Between Christian ethics and civil law.

But it’s not obvious whether he said more in interviews with Eric to clarify his point of view, but Eric didn’t follow these further clarifications, or wasn’t persuaded that they were coherent, so left them out of the final episode.

This illustrates the difficulty that those with conservative moral views have now in communicating to many people in secular Western society. The concepts and distinctions we make in our ethics are no longer considered coherent or meaningful or useful.

The episode also raises the issue of how transparent churches are about their sexual ethics.

Sexual ethics and Transparency

One line this episode pursues, is the failure of churches to be clear about what they believe in general, and specifically about issues relevant to LGBT issues and women in leadership issues. The episode suggests that the church failing to be up front about these things is as best ambiguous and confusing and at worst actively deceptive. They talk with people from an organisation called Church Clarity that is lobbying for all churches to make their policies clear and accessible on their websites:

An organization’s website serves as a centralized location for the public to understand critical information about an organization. It is the main place that people turn to in order to find out what they can expect.

We believe that policies, especially those who have been historically marginalized, qualify as “critical information” because they directly impact people’s ability to participate, or not, in a church. While we recognize the pastoral desire to discuss nuances of a particular theology, actively enforced policies are much more straightforward. They can and should be communicated explicitly from the start (see the question below “Why do you evaluate church “policies” and not “theology”?”).

It’s a fair point. The podcast episode points out how people can get enmeshed with a church community over months and months before they realise where the church stands on some of these key issues that might be ideologically important to them — or painfully, personally relevant. That’s a rude shock to discover once you’ve already become a part of the community and its support systems. Of course, this is something that there is a decent amount of onus on the church goer or visitor to bother to ask. I don’t think it’s a surprising or shocking thing that Christian churches might have convictions on such matters, and it is strange not to think to ask.

This is an interesting issue, and a good demonstration about how churches are perceived. I don’t think it’s true or fair to say that churches are being deceptive on this matter. Rather, three things are going on:

  • churches want to be open to as many as possible, and want to have a simple core message for people to primarily engage with. They are more interested about people being clear on Jesus and his gospel, than being distracted by details of the Christian ethics or church practice.
  • Culture has changed rapidly, so that this would not have been a big issues even 3 or 5 years let alone 10 years ago. It would be assumed that people understand the basics of Christian ethics and theology.
  • Churches are also wary of how snippets from public documents can be taken out of context and interpreted unfairly, so are perhaps defensive for these reasons too.

But this is still a welcome challenge: by being cautious, and focussing on our core ‘pitch’… are we accidentally coming across as deceptive, ambiguous, confusing, hurtful.

It seems to make sense that our church websites would publish our doctrinal basis and key policy statements on these kinds of matters? I’m definitely keen to urge the organisation I’m employed by, AFES, and the local student ministry I work alongside, the University Fellowship of Christians, to be more transparent about these things.

 

 

Mikey Lynch is one of the directors of Geneva Push and regularly sharing his thoughts here on this Christian Reflections blog.

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