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.

 

 

StartUp Podcast on church planting — Part 3: Hell and Calvinism

Part 1: There’s lots to like

Part 2: General ways it misses the mark


Having made some more general comments, now in part 3 I want to consider the first ‘Big Question’ that gets raised in Episode 4 of this StartUp: the question of Hell.

Hell 

When asked about his view on hell, church planter AJ Smith gives a typical soft, Tim Keller-type description about hell as God handing us over to our rejection of him. It’s the hell-as-separation idea, that is a true, but incomplete description of the Bible’s teaching. On its own it removes the concept of hell-as-punishment and hell-as-wrath. It can run the risk of reducing hell to ‘God respecting our personal choice and giving us what we want, in a way that makes him sad, and might make us miss out on some lovely spiritual things, but isn’t all that bad’.

There are two legitimate parts of an apologetic on hell:

  1. To explain how sin is much much worse than we think it is.
  2. To explain how hell is not bad in the particular caricatured way we think it is.

Both have a place, but #1 is extremely important, and skews theology a great deal if it is left out. I think AJ makes this mistake. Nevertheless I don’t think he’s entirely wrong in what he does say.

But the way journalist Eric Mennel summarises AJ’s teaching is quite odd in its misinterpretation: ‘Ooh baby, hell is a place on Earth’. I find it hard to see how he could have come to this interpretation from what AJ said. All I can think is that AJ was sufficiently vague and ambiguous in his care not to sound like a hellfire preacher, that Eric kind of tuned out and drew his own conclusion. Or perhaps, this is a case where Eric’s own opinions trumped a fair representation of what AJ actually said?

Calvinism

The other odd thing in this part of the discussion was how inadequately and clumsily Eric described and assessed various Christian concepts of predestination. For someone who is stepping in deep to important matters of theology, and is presuming to speak as something of an insider, this was really lame. Important distinctions between Calvinism, hyper-Calvinism, double predestination, infralapsarianism were fudged badly.

Eric claimed that by AJ believing in genuine human responsibility, that somehow the idea of predestination was being denied or eroded. He didn’t have to explain all the finer points, nor even understand every detail. But a bit more care in research, and running his summaries by others, might have possibly avoided the fogginess of this section.

I am so thankful again for all the good points about this season, and the way Eric Mennel has put it together, so I don’t want to be a pedant. It’s a tricky thing to get right — and to package it all so it remains interesting to a total outsider listening in.

But I’m just reflecting as an evangelical Christian pastor on how it could have been even better still. Because on some of these points these Big Questions are not really handled well.

 

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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