Podcast episode 028: We answer your questions

by | May 21, 2019

This is the first of our Q&A episodes, in which Tony answers a bunch of the questions that you’ve sent in by email or asked at one of our recent events.

Questions include:

  • Does the fact that Christ alone is the basis of our fellowship mean that gender-based ministries or affinity-based congregations are problematic?
  • What’s the relationship between joy and thanksgiving?
  • Is personal Bible reading insufficient to resist temptation as Christian?
  • What’s the relationship between the mutual free word of encouragement Christians speak to each other, and prophecy?
  • If we’re supposed to admonish one another as Christians, how practically speaking do we do that?

(If you have any questions from our podcast, or about the Christian life in general, send them to ccl@moore.edu.au. We’ll be running another Q&A episode soon.)

Links referred to:


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Transcript

Tony Payne: Hello, I’m Tony Payne, and welcome to another episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. And this is a special episode: it’s the first of our Q&A episodes, where we catch up a whole bunch of the questions that you’ve been sending in over the last several weeks and that you’ve been asking at our most recent public event, and we try and do our best to answer them. There’ll be questions today about gender, about ministry, about what it means to speak the Word to one another, about whether joy and thankfulness are really the same thing, and about how you go about rebuking or calling someone out who’s a friend and who’s straying in the Christian life in a way that’s godly. Lots of great questions to get to. Thanks for joining us today on the Centre for Christian Living podcast.

[Music]

TP:Well, before we get to the first of our questions, a quick reminder about our next Centre for Christian Living event, which is coming up very soon on May 25th. It’s a Saturday morning seminar called “A very short course in Christian ethics” , and as the title suggests, what we’re aiming to do on Saturday morning from 9:30 ‘til 1 is give you a framework for how to think ethically about all of life—how to bring the Bible’s ethics—the Bible’s theology and teaching about what is moral and good and true—to every aspect of our lives as Christians. Normally in our Centre for Christian Living events, of course, we deal with one particular topic or subject, and apply the Bible’s ethics to that. But in this special Saturday seminar, we’re trying to zoom back a bit and give you an overall framework for how to think about and apply the Bible to every aspect of the Christian life. “A very short course in Christian ethics”. That’s Saturday May 25th. Go to our website: ccl.moore.edu.au for all the details.

Gender-specific ministry

But let’s get to the first of our questions. Our first question relates to Graham Beynon’s podcast episode on gender differences between men and women, and in particular, how those differences play out in gender-specific ministries, and indeed whether gender-specific ministries are a good idea. Graham said that his default position in ministry is that men and women should be together in ministry groups. So he prefers mixed Bible study groups instead of mens groups and womens groups. And Hank Lee writes in with a question on this topic. He says,

I broadly agree with Graham that what we share in Christ—that is, fellowship in him—is much more profound and able to cross differences in ministry with one another. However, I wonder whether Graham overstated his case when he implied that he doesn’t see a place for ongoing gender-specific ministries—for example, a weekly mens Bible study group. From memory [says Hank], Graham said that he doesn’t mind one-off gender specific ministries, but that his default is for mixed ministries. I think [says Hank] that this is overstated, because there is a need—or a place for—same-sex friendships and fellowships between men and men, and women and women. There are gender—general character trait differences between men and women, and in Christian theology, different callings: there is fatherhood, motherhood, being a brother or sister. And these require both male/female relationships and friendships, and male-to-male and female-to-female friendships.

Hank makes a—a very good point here and raises a good question. When we’re thinking about ministry—and in particular, how we structure ministry and what our ministry should look like in church—we look to the New Testament for principles—for thought processes that guide us—and we see in—in Graham’s presentation and in Hank’s point two good principles: that is, what Graham is talking about is the unity that we have in Christ and the fact that what we share as Christians in Christ is far more important than the differences between us, as Galatians 3:28 says: all those barriers—men and women, slave and free, Greek and—and Jew—they’re broken down in Christ. We’re all one in Christ, because Christ is what we fundamentally share with one another.

And yet there’s also the point that Hank makes—that—and in the New Testament—that there is differentiation between us as well—not only creational differences between men and women, but vocational differences. We’re called to be fathers or mothers, for example.

And we see this in the Scriptures: we see this in 1 Timothy, for example, where Timothy is asked to relate to everybody. He—he is leading a fellowship and he is meant to relate to and minister to everyone in Christ, and he has the same sound teaching and doctrine that he wants to teach and command and—and—and model as well, in Timothy 4. But it’s interesting that in 1 Timothy 5, he’s encouraged to relate to older men as fathers—to treat them gently—to relate to older women as if relating to a mother, and so—so on and so forth. He relates to each one of them somewhat differently depending on the kind of state of life that they’re in and who they are. And we see that also in Titus in the Pastorals—in Titus chapter 2—and Hank mentions this in his letter—that older women are to teach younger women. Now, presumably, that’s because older women can really understand what the—the implications of the good doctrine of the gospel are for being a wife and a mother, and can pass that on to younger women in a way that a man, perhaps, couldn’t.

And so, it seems to me that we need to hold these kinds of principles together and give due weight to each one, and not allow one to overpower the other. I think Graham is making the point—and rightly—that dividing people up all the time in our ministries such that the sexes don’t mingle with each other and that just separating off ministry into men and women all the time doesn’t give due weight to the principle that we’re all one in Christ Jesus and that we, in fact, share more across our gender differences than what differentiates us. And so, for—for him, and in his ministry, that’s expressed through having mixed groups as his default kind of groups. And I think that’s a fair point.

But Hank has brought to our attention, I think, a perfectly important—sorry, a very important and perfectly right other principle—that treating everybody exactly same, and as not having particular needs or particular characteristics, given their particular stage of life or their gender or their vocation, is not to respect those differences and the kind of ministry needs that those differences call forth as well. And so it seems to me we need to hold these two things together, giving them their due weight, and work out a mix in our ministries that works and respects both principles.

So thanks, Hank, for—for raising that. It’s a very helpful question.

Affinity groups

We had several related questions to Chase Kuhn’s presentation on the nature of Christian community, and the joy of Christian community, at our event on February 25th. Chase argued that the gospel—if we’re going to really let the gospel inform and play out in our midst and be confident in the gospel—should lead us to break down demographic divisions between us as church, rather than constructing a fellowship or a Christian community in which we’re all parcelled together in affinity groups: there’s a congregation for young adults, there’s a congregation for young families, there’s a congregation for older people, and so on and so forth—as if what we—we share demographically in terms of people being like ourselves should be the basis of our fellowship as a Christian community. And a number of people have asked a question in relation to that: “Does that mean therefore that youth groups are a bad thing?” Or that we, for whatever reason, might choose to seek to minister to particular groupings who have an affinity or a likeness with one another.

And once again, it seems to me that we’re seeking to hold together two principles, and I think Chase is—is really urging us not to forget the unity principle, which in many congregations seems to have happened—that we’re so divided up into different groups that the default kind of position of a congregation becomes that I only go to a congregation or a church that is like me. Whereas, the kind of New Testament principle that drives affinity-based ministry is really that I—I seek to be a Jew to win the Jew—that certain differences between us can be something that we—we work with and overcome in order to bring the gospel. That is, the principle that like, to some extent, is able to minister to like, which is similar to the point that we were just making with regard to Graham’s presentation as well.

So it seems to me that the answer is much the same there: there are two principles here that are both important. We need to hold them together and at the same time, give due weight to each one so that—I would say that, personally, that means that there is a place for demographically distinctive ministries—especially in outreach. But that if demographic distinctions become so dominate in our structures and the way we organise ourselves as church that we aren’t expressing the fundamental unity we have in Christ and that Christ is what we have in common, then we also have a problem.

Christian joy and thankfulness

Another question: James Warren writes, “What is the difference or the link between Christian joy and thankfulness?” This was in response to our event on “The elusive joy of Christian community” . This is a perceptive question, I think, because joy and thankfulness, I think, have a great deal in common. They both are standard aspects of the Christian life in the New Testament. They come up repeatedly as a facet of what it means to respond to the gospel—to be someone who gives thanks. In fact, one of the specific characteristics of what it means to be wicked and unbelieving in Romans 1 is that you refuse to give thanks to the God who made everything and who’s so divinely powerful and good. So thanksgiving is one of the basic characteristics of the Christian life—characteristic of the kind of person who now recognises that God is God—that all things come from him by his goodness and grace and generosity—and that the only appropriate response to that is one of deep thankfulness. And likewise joy comes up repeatedly in the New Testament as a fruit of the Spirit and as one of the basic responses of the Christian heart to all that God has done—to rejoice—to rejoice constantly and always. Even in the midst of suffering and trial, to rejoice. So there is a great deal in common, I think, between joy and thanksgiving: they’re both recognising what God has done, understanding and grasping that by faith, and responding to that.

How are they different? I think thankfulness and thanksgiving is invariably and unavoidably verbal: it’s a confession or route—reiteration or repeating or acknowledgement of what I’ve received, and a giving back of thanks in speech to the person who has given those things. And so, thanksgiving, it seems to me, itemises our blessings and gives thanks for them. It recognises them and speaks them aloud—and—and understands that they come from God by his grace.

Joy can also, of course, be verbal: we can rejoice in song; we can rejoice in praise. But rejoicing more describes a gladness—an attitude—an inclination of our hearts—defined goodness and gladness and happiness in the great things that God has done for us—even in those circumstances where life is difficult, where the blessings that God gives us in his Son come in the midst of—of trial and suffering and hardship. And so, I think joy and thankfulness are—are both basic to the Christian life, and they’re both based on an understanding we have by faith of what God has done in the gospel. But they express that response in slightly different ways.

Personal Bible reading vs. the one-another Word

Here’s another question that comes from our event on “The elusive joy of Christian community”: at that event, I spoke about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and about his definition of community and what community really was—that is, community in and through Jesus Christ, where we relate to one another through him—and in particular, how one important facet of that relating to one another through Christ was the mutual speaking of the word of Christ to each other. Bonhoeffer makes a lot of this—how the “free word”, as he calls it—the—the brother speaks to the brother—is a vital and important facet of our service of one another in Christian community—that we meet and encounter one another as bringers of the word of God to each other—that, in other words, as Ephesians puts it, “speaking the truth in love to one another” is just a basic aspect of what it means to be part of a Christian community together.

And there’s a couple of questions that bounced off this. One says this:

If we need others to bring the word of God to us [which is how Bonhoeffer puts it—that we need one another to speak the word because, in our own hearts, we come to doubt and we’re uncertain, and we need others to come and bring encouragement to us], if that’s the case, is personal Bible reading insufficient to resist temptation?

My answer would be, on its own, yes: it is insufficient, because the way God sends his word to us comes in multiple forms, and we need those different forms for the different strengths and functions that they perform in our lives. For example, if we only read our Bible ourselves and never listened to the word preached, where it was explained and expounded and applied to our consciences and our hearts, I would say that’s insufficient. I would say that sermons do something in the way that the word of God is communicated through a sermon that personal Bible reading almost always doesn’t get to.

But likewise, I would say that the—and I think the New Testament would back this up very strongly—that the mutual speaking of the Word—the “one another” speaking of the Word—does something that personal Bible reading on its own doesn’t always do and can’t always do. And in particular, what that “one another” speech that—can do is to admonish, to encourage and exhort one another—especially when we’re weak and when we may be self-deceived or sinning in our understanding of the Word or in our Christian practice. And so, personal Bible reading, while vital and important and supremely helpful in teaching and encouraging us from the Word and in keeping us going as Christians, I think doesn’t remove the need for mutual encouragement—for bringing the Word to one another.

Of course, all these different facets of the Word are linked together: the more we hear sermons that are true to the gospel, the more we’ll be equipped to speak to one another and encourage each other. And likewise, the more we read our Bibles and have our hearts filled with Scripture, the more we’ll be able to bring out from our treasure house, as it were, treasures both new and old, as Jesus says. The more we understand and know the Bible, the more we’ll be able to encourage one another in it. Excellent question! Thanks for that.

Prophecy vs. the free Word

Another question about the free Word—the Word we speak to one another: this one is also from James Warren. He asks, “Is the free Word we speak to one another the same thing as prophecy in the New Testament?”

Now, this is a somewhat complicated question and I don’t want this podcast to go on for three hours while we dig into the nature of prophecy in the Bible and in the New Testament. But very briefly, I think I would like to answer this question, “Yes and no,” if you don’t mind me doing that. That is, the free Word is very similar to prophecy, but it’s not quite the same thing—certainly not as far as Bonhoeffer is using that phrase.

You see, prophecy in the New Testament is a very—varied phenomenon. But in its—in its essence—and especially as it’s described in 1 Corinthians 14, which is the one passage that does talk about prophecy at length in the New Testament—it’s a form of “one another” speech—a form of speech that Christians engage in as Christians. That is, it’s not just the form of teaching or preaching that the elders and pastors do. In 1 Corinthians 14, it’s a form of speech that Paul urges the whole Corinthian community to seek after and to practice if they can. And it’s—it’s kind of like the ideal or ultimate form of “one another” encouragement and exhortation in the New Testament, where you apply the gospel to the life of the people that you’re speaking to in a way that brings them that edification and encouragement. I think that’s how prophecy functions in 1 Corinthians 14. And in that context, it’s happening in a church gathering, where you come to that gathering with that word and share it with others for their edification and comfort, and for their growth.

In a sense, it’s like the free Word—the Word from brother to brother—but spoken to others in a gathering such as church. And so, it does, of course, require some discernment and some wisdom and maturity; it needs to be weighed and discerned and thought about and judged. It’s something to seek after and to grow in—prophecy—in 1 Corinthians 14. But the kind of free Word that Bonhoeffer was speaking about in Life Together is more the—the everyday informal “one another” Word that confronts a particular person in a particular context, and brings encouragement and exhortation to them.

And so, in some ways, the—they’re two species of the one genus—that are these two kinds of speech: the free Word that Bonhoeffer speaks about, and the prophecy that might take place within a church gathering. I think they’re related, but not precisely the same thing.

Now that might just generate a whole series of new questions that you want to ask me about prophecy and the nature of speech in church. Feel free to ask away, but I think that’s as much as I want to say on that one at this point.

[Music]

Coming to terms with Bonhoeffer

One final question on Bonhoeffer: this person asks anonymously, “How do we make sense of some of the unorthodox or unconventional tenets of Bonhoeffer’s theology?”

Now this is a good question, because it’s very true that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was a bit of a darling of modern Christianity. He’s a bit of a hero for lots of different groups. It’s certainly true that he had some unorthodox and non-evangelical beliefs at various points in his life. And how do we make sense of this?

Well, the first thing is to recognise that Bonhoeffer himself went on something of a journey and a movement in his own thought and life. Certainly early in his career, he would have been what we would call a theological liberal. But around 1932, he underwent quite a profound change in his attitude to the Bible and to the impact of the gospel on his own life. It’s difficult to say whether this amounted to a conversion for Bonhoeffer, but in my view, having looked at the documents fairly carefully recently, if—if he wasn’t converted, it was something very like a conversion. From 1932 onwards, he spoke much more personally and warmly of the living, powerful word of God that comes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the importance of our personal response to that Word in faith and obedience.

And so, Bonhoeffer’s writings in the early to mid 30s—most particularly, The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together—are—are full of the Bible and are full of a much more orthodox evangelical-style response to the scriptural truth and to the gospel.

This doesn’t mean that Bonhoeffer was himself at that time a—a straight up and down evangelical conservative, by any means, in the way that we might say. He had a view of Scripture that we would probably say was not evangelical. Certainly it was more Barthian than—than we would say evangelical. And as his career continued—as—after his arrest and some of the writings from prison, some of the views there by—might strike people as unusual and unconventional.

I guess the point is that, as with anybody, whether it’s someone like Karl Barth or someone like—like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we can read and appreciate their works, and learn from them, and benefit from their quite profound insights at points, without having to baptise or accept everything they say as the truth. And this is the case with reading other people generally.

And I hope with listening to this podcast or coming to a CCL event, that we do so with discernment and with a sense of responsibility that we need to look and hear what people are saying, check it against the Scriptures, and not necessarily accept everything that everyone says.

So read with—read Bonhoeffer by all means. Learn and be discerning. Don’t be swept up in the hero worship of him that—that some people have. But recognise that he does have much to teach us as a discerning teacher of the Word—especially on the subjects that we’ve been looking at.

Calling out sin

And one final question also on the topic of how we speak to one another—the Word to encourage one another in Christian community. Someone has asked, “What are some practical ways to call out a brother or sister who’s in sin? Any hints?”

This is an excellent question, because it’s all very well to talk about admonishing one another in the Lord, but most of us would run a mile, rather than admonish another person in the Lord, because we’re quite scared about what it looks like, and quite concerned that any—any move we might make to mention to somebody else and rebuke them or call them out on something would be devastating for our relationship with them.

I think the first thing to note in answer to this question is that we need to have confidence in the gospel and in our gospel friendships—that they’re strong enough to bear the load of mutual admonishment. If our friendships are so superficial and our fellowship is so superficial, that admonishment—that is, undertaking what the Bible says we should do with one another—to speak to and exhort and, at times, admonish one another if—if our—if the bonds of our affection are so flimsy as to make that impossible, then we need to re-look at the bonds of our affection. We need to rethink the basis upon which we’re relating to each another, and realise that our bonds in Christ are much deeper than that in our affection for each other.

Secondly, I’d want to say, of course, that any kind of mutual admonition or calling out of someone in sin needs to be done gently, and the Bible mentions this on—on several occasions when it talks about rebuking or talking to someone who’s in error or who’s in some way wronged us. It’s to do it gently—that is, not harshly or in a superior or aggressive way. And I think part of doing it gently means taking the time to make sure you understand the situation well—not just to dive in, boots and all, and accuse someone of something and rebuke them. But to take the time to understand exactly what’s happening—that—to make sure that you’re understanding the—what seems to be happening and the behaviour or attitude or problem that you seem to be observing that you want to speak to someone about is, in fact, correct, and that you’ve understood correctly and that you haven’t just got the wrong end of the stick, because you haven’t been aware of the circumstances. So any kind of admonition, seems to me, needs to be an enquiring, listening kind of admonition that wants to understand the circumstance really well.

And this means that it needs to be personal. I don’t think that calling someone out or admonishing someone is something you do by email or by text. It’s something you do within relationship, where you’re talking with someone and spending time with them—over coffee—perhaps even over a couple of coffees—to get to the bottom of what’s happening, to understand someone sufficiently to know what the problem really is, and sometimes what seems to be the problem is hiding the real problem. And so that you can speak to that person, support them in it and encourage them to change.

Galatians chapter 6, I think, is terrific on this subject. It says:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbour. For each will have to bear his own load. (Gal 6:1-5)

There’s so much wonderful stuff in these verses, we could—we could spend the rest of this podcast unpacking them. But notice that Galatians 6 says that when we res—when we rebuke or—or bring someone back who’s caught in any transgression, we need to do it with a recognition that we ourselves are subject to exactly the same temptation and tendency, and to approach a conversation with someone—someone in that spirit makes a real difference in being able to relate to them and win their trust in—in seeking to say, “Look, you—you’re heading in the wrong direction, it seems. You need to turn back.”

There’s also a recognition in Galatians 6 that we bear one another’s burdens—that this is really important that we care enough about someone else and love other people enough to want to bear the burden of their weakness and their frailty and their struggle and their failure in this instance—to try to help them back with it. But it’s also great that in this passage, it says, “But we each bear our own burden” as well. In the end, that other person is responsible for his or her own repentance, and—as are we for our—our own. And so, our admonition or rebuking of someone else can never take the form of seeking to strong arm or force or manipulate someone into change. We can only bring a word and an understanding and encouraging presence to the other person to say, “It’s time to change this, it seems to me. This is going wrong. Let me encourage you not to keep going in that direction.” But their response to that word and whether they turn around is their responsibility, not ours. And we can only pray that—that God would move their hearts. And just as our own behaviour and our own response to the Word is our responsibility as well.

And that means, of course, that any calling out of someone—any admonition—any rebuke—obviously is done in prayerful trust and in gospel confidence—confidence that the gospel is powerful to bring change and to—and that the rebuke will be effective, but also trust that God would work through his word and help to turn someone around who might be heading in the wrong direction.

[Music]

Well, that’s all we’ve got time for on this Q&A episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. We’ll do another one of these in the next month or two, so please do send in your questions. There’s some we haven’t got to in the current list, and we’ll—we’ll deal with those next time. But thanks to everyone who—who wrote in and please do keep sending them in. We’ll deal with as many as we can in our next Q&A episode.

Don’t forget our next event, which is on May 25th. Go to ccl.moore.edu.au for all the details. And if you want to get in touch with questions or with any comments, you can email us at ccl@moore.edu.au.

Thanks for being with us for this episode and thanks, too, to Karen Beilharz for all the help she gives in making CCL possible. Thanks Karen!

I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.

Our next event:

“Is God green?” with Lionel Windsor, Monday 29 July 2019 at Moore College.

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