Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the August 1997 edition of Essentials  



Competent, Convinced and Complete in the gospel

By Malcolm Anderson

Malcolm Anderson teaches at Melbourne University and is currently completingdoctoral studies in Economics


I used to believe the universe revolved around the golden wheatfields of western Victoria. (At that time, it was true for me.) I used to believe dynamic Christian leadership arose spontaneously and randomly from within the church as the Spirit willed. By God's grace, this is partly true. But evidence compels otherwise.


In the parable of the sower, there is nothing wrong with the seed, but it falls in different sorts of ground, and where the soil is good, it multiplies "thirty, sixty, or even a hundred fold".


Spiritual choices


Christians are faced with many choices regarding their spiritual development: the choice of church, the choice of reading material, the choice of friends and confidants, and especially the choice of spiritual mentors - those who will teach and nurture us in the faith. At university, we were faced with a choice of what Christian fellowship we would join. It has often struck me that this choice seemed to have lifelong implications: the spiritual (and in some cases, moral) unfolding of those who joined the liberal campus groups was in appreciable contrast to those who placed themselves under the teaching programs of the evangelical groups such as Student Life, Navigators, or Christian Union. The facts are, some churches, some organisations, and some individuals, consistently produce and inspire genuine faithfulness and maturity in those within their care, while others do not.


The Apostle's secret


What is the secret? We can do no better than to look at Paul. What was it that drove him onwards? Why didn't he retire to Coolangatta when had the chance (after all, surely, he had done enough in his life)? "I have worked much harder," he writes to the Corinthians,


been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the crafs the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.


(2 Cor. 11:23-27)


Was it the character of the man that drove him onward? The single-mindedness of a saint who had successfully crushed all sin and distraction? It wasn't. For it was Paul who wrote "I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do." (Rom. 7:14,15) and "who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?" (2 Cor. 11:29)


Was it the sheer courage of the man? The unflinching bravery of a true soldier of Christ? The garland of honour went to the soldier who was "first in", first over the wall. Paul was "first out". Recalling his escape from Damascus in a basket, he glories in his unceremonious departure through a window in the city wall. Paul was "first over the wall" in the opposite direction to the battle.


Was it his great learning and religious purity of his background? "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ" (Phil. 3:7). Compared to the "unsurpassing greatness of knowing Christ", his knowledge and upbringing Paul now "counted ... as camel droppings" (my translation - from the original Akkadian).


Was it the magnificence of the heavenly vision he described to the Corinthian church? Surely it was the wonder of this that motivated his very being and drove him onward for Christ through shipwreck, beating, toil, and snow? Rather not. This vision became a temptation to him, and "to keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me." (2 Cor. 12:7)


Plain Paul: No Mystery There


What, then, activated the Apostle Paul? As he most movingly tells Timothy in a letter, it was the gospel of Christ:


I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Tim. 1:12-16)


We ought never lose sight of the fact that Paul never recovered from the shock of this gospel; its dimensions were beyond his mind and heart to fully connect. Like the unfortunate who wails "why me?", the great Apostle would not locate the reason why God "appointed me to his service" in the profile of the sinner - but only in the grace and mercy of God.


Here is the key to Christian faithfulness, the foundation for quality Christian leadership: the groundplan is the gospel. Whatever techniques, whatever plans, whatever institutions, whatever 'tried and trues' we take into the next century, all will be useless lest we ground leaders and followers in the gospel of Christ. This is the very seed from which all growth will sprout (and let's face it, we are not in the best position to tell the Christian leaders of 2030 how to go about their ministry, what the threats will be, or the opportunities to be grasped). But we can pass on the tool that produces the competent, convinced and complete Christian: the gospel. Here is a sketch of the groundplan:


Competent in the Gospel


I believe we need to produce Christians who are competent in the gospel. It is surprising how often we stumble when a workmate or friend asks us what Christianity is all about. Or, when some erroneous opinion is proffered, we notice that many in our congregation are - while usually "smelling a rat" - unable to discern exactly what it is that is wrong. This more than an absence of 'bible knowledge', it is more typically a sign that the gospel argument is unknown. The challenge is not to make competent theologians of ordinary Christians (that would take too long), but to install within believers - all believers - a basic knowledge about the framework of God's plan of salvation.


No harm would be done if a congregation or bible study group took a whole year to master the more accessible gospel outlines in scripture: the gospel of Mark, or Paul's letter to the Romans. There does come a time when an individual can get his or her mind around the argument. It happens, I believe, when one can no longer read a text and not comprehend it apart from the gospel argument. In some sense, it is quite scandalous that reasonably able and literate churchgoers can sit in a pew for years on end and still not know what the central gospel argument actually is. Often, they simply have never been taught.


Convinced in the Gospel


I believe we need to produce Christians who are convinced in the gospel: "but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction." (1:5) The faithful teaching of the gospel argument will come to permeate all motivations and all directions and plans. It is not good enough to produce good natured Christians. The Christian who is overcome by the beauty of creation will be directed only to bringing others into the experience of thanksgiving for the universe; the Christian who is primarily motivated by the experience of having received friendship, care and love, will only want to see others gain his rich experience. These things are admirable, and not to be discouraged or disdained; but they are completely inadequate.


It is only the Christian who is awestruck by the grace of God in salvation - who is motivated by the death of Christ for sinners like himself - who will have a goal of bringing others into that same experience of grace. Clearly, this was Pauls' motivation, and his goal.


We need to beware of leaving the hard-working activist, or the faithful hospital visitor, or the energetic chorus leader, or the cheerful welcomer to their own devices. There is no balance in a congregation that is into evangelism and social concern, or witness and legal advocacy, or gospel and community; a church is not balanced by having some carers, some pastors, some administrators, some welcomers: the only balance the New Testament knows is Christianity balanced linearly on the cross of Christ.


It is gospel motivated activism, or gospel motivated friendship, or gospel motivated childraising, or gospel motivated soup kitchens that count in the long run. The choice is never between evangelism and community activism or "doing both"; the choice is always between gospel motivated activity or activity motivated by something else. Some may reply that this (apparent) concern with the soul at the expense of the body is spiritually cynical. I respect the fears, but believe the concerns are unfounded. True humanity and compassion is found in Christ, and is being perfected only in the lives of His people. Therefore to pass on the gospel is to create a truly humanitarian individual - we should not doubt that the social "spin-offs" from the gospel centred person will be other than numerous and praiseworthy.


Complete in the Gospel


Finally, I believe we need to produce Christians who are complete in the gospel. That is, Christians who "keep on keeping on", and who seek to replicate gospel-centred individuals, and churches "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone" (Eph 2:20). A people who "guard what has been entrusted to your care" (1 Tim 6:20) and "keep as the pattern of sound teaching" that "which you heard from me" (1Tim 1:13), a people who are not unsettled (but rather expecting) suffering, trial and temptation (1 Peter 4; James 1 and 5; Hebrews 12).


Paul commends those who "became imitators of us and of the Lord" as "a model to all believers..." (! Thess 1:6,7). We should not be ashamed that our aim is to produce fully-fledged evangelicals. Ultimately, the only evangelicalism worthy of the name is that which is gospel-competent, gospel-convinced, and biblically mature.


The church of God is balanced and complete by virtue of the variety of personalities and backgrounds that it represents, not its range of theological views. A diversity of doctrines constitutes lack of balance in a congregation, an invitation for numerous hindrances to ministry, in fact, there is no more point in celebrating the mixture of Anglican traditions than expecting white paint and coloured paint to stay separate in the one mixing bowl. The groundplan to producing Christian quality will not arise from "Anglican diversity", only from the gospel.


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