Sunday, June 30, 2013

Authentic Fellowship
June 30, 2013 by Howard Snyder
What is “Fellowship” in the biblical sense? This question was posted in Christianity Today. Here is my response.

How do we learn the deep “one another” community of Scripture without being in close proximity?
– Karen Shepard, Wheaton Illinois

Community in the New Testament sense of koinonia assumes and requires face-to-face communication, whether in a horse-and-buggy age or an Internet age. Three things marked New Testament Christian community: It was centered in Jesus Christ—believers met together as Jesus followers, constituting his body; this fellowship was a gift of the Holy Spirit; and the community was missional. That is, the New Testament community was directed toward a purpose outside itself—actually being a living witness to Christ and gospel power in the world.

Many churches have a superficial idea (and experience) of community. Christian community is easily mistaken for mere cordiality, courtesy, or sociability. It easily becomes least-common-denominator “fellowship,” not much different from the Kiwanis or a neighborhood potluck. Often so-called Christian community is marked by nothing that is specifically Christian and nothing that challenges the values of surrounding pagan society.

The question as posed, however, hints at the answer: The “one another” passages in the New Testament. Several things stand out when we look at the many “one anothers,” such as “be devoted to one another” (Rom. 12:10), “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), “carry one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2).

First, most of these passages imply behaviors, not just attitudes. The New Testament writers are less concerned with how believers feel about each other than they are about their actions—their living together as community and publicly as disciples. Sometimes we reverse this, focusing on attitudes but forgetting action.

Second, all the “one another” passages imply a social context—appropriate structures in which these behaviors can be lived out. In the New Testament, of course, the early church was essentially a network of home fellowships and this happened more naturally.

Today, in congregations of hundreds and thousands, most of the “one anothers” happen through home groups or other small-group structures—Bible studies, choirs, and so on. But not all of these structures are as intentional or as deep as the New Testament sense of community.

Third, nearly all the “one another” passages are imperatives—instructions about actual behaviors, not reminders of abstract spiritual truths we can enjoy meditating upon. The New Testament is full of these “one another” injunctions precisely because early Christians needed to be reminded of them.

If so then, even more so today.

Hebrews 10:24–25 stands out. “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” What would this have meant to a Christian church in, say, Rome or Philippi?

This passage shows that mutual encouragement was a primary church function. Also, notice that a certain amount of informal conversation and “consideration” happened. They talked together; they evidently practiced some of the other “one anothers,” such as instructing (Rom. 15:14) and building up each other (1 Thess. 5:11).

Finally, they were concerned not just with fellowship but with the practical matter of “love and good deeds.” The author of Hebrews tells these brothers and sisters to be intentional: Consider how you may prompt one another to the practical living out of your faith.

This passage also hints, however, that “some” were developing a bad “habit” of neglecting the meetings. So it is in any age or culture. Some people will drop by the wayside. The temptation, then, is to water down the intimacy or frequency or cost of meeting together to accommodate those who want something less demanding.

This is a fatal mistake. Historical and sociological studies have shown repeatedly that churches with high belonging expectations are more vital, grow faster, have more countercultural impact, and last longer than those that relax the intensity of their community life.

In small groups, it is important to share your concerns and “growing edges” and to study Scripture. Face-to-face community in such contexts is not a secondary add-on—it is the church itself, as described in Acts 2:42 (“They devoted themselves . . . to the fellowship”) and in the “one another” passages.

When in 1738 John Wesley started the religious group known as the Fetter Lane Society, he said that he did so “in obedience to the command of God by St. James, and by the advice of Peter Böhler.” The reference is to James 5:16 (“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed”).

Wesley came to understand—as other Christians have learned—that Christians don’t naturally confess to each other. It takes the kind of trust and openness that develops only in some form of face-to-face community. That is the way churches know what it means to “be healed.”

Saturday, June 29, 2013

What Is a Missional Hermeneutic?

Brian D. Russell (
A missional hermeneutic is an interpretive approach that privileges mission as the key to reading the Scriptures. Missional hermeneutics works across the spectrum of approaches to the biblical text. It takes seriously the historical situation of the text (“behind the text”). It recognizes the influence of the reader’s social location (“in front of the text”). Yet it is fundamentally rooted in a close reading of the text (“the world of the text”). A missional hermeneutic seeks to hear the Scriptures as an authoritative guide to God’s mission in the world so that communities of faith can participate fully in God’s mission.

At the 2008 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, G.R. Hunsberger (“Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping the Conversation”) reviewed current proposals on missional hermeneutics and organized them into four categories: The Missional Direction of the Story, The Missional Locatedness of the Readers, The Missional Engagement with Cultures, and The Missional Purpose of the Writings. I have adopted Hunsberger’s categories for the purposes of this essay.

The Missional Direction of the Story

A missional hermeneutic recognizes that the biblical canon tells the story of God’s mission (i.e., missio dei) in and for creation. The story of God’s mission can be summarized as Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus the Messiah, Church, and New Creation.

The Bible opens with the creation of the heavens and earth by God. The human community is crafted in God’s image as the pinnacle of God’s handiwork. Men and women function equally as the image of God for the sake of the rest of creation. From the beginning, humanity was created for God’s missional purposes to represent God before creation by reflecting God’s character in community with God, with one another, and with the world.

Genesis 3-11 function in the story to explain the fundamental problem in the world. The “very good” creation of Genesis 1-2 is shattered by human sinfulness. Sin infests every human person and institution as well as fractures creation itself. The stories and genealogies of Gen 3-11 describe the world in which we find ourselves this side of God’s new creation. Yet in the midst of the chaos of sin and brokenness, Gen 3-11 presents a God who does more than pass the expected judgment—the God of the Scriptures begins to act to redeem a fallen world.

In Gen 12, God calls a new humanity into being with a series of promises to Abram and his descendents. This people exist to serve as the agents of God’s blessings for the nations (Gen 12:3). The narrative of God’s new humanity runs uninterrupted through the Protestant canon from Gen 12 – Esther. God’s new humanity becomes the nation of Israel. It is decisively shaped through God’s liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage and through the forging of a covenant at Sinai. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is purposeful and is undertaken for the sake of the world. At Sinai, Israel is called to serve as God’s missional people, a holy community for the nations (Exod 19:4-6). The remaining books of the Pentateuch establish a polity for God’s people as they prepare to live faithfully in the Promised Land as a witness to the nations. Joshua to Esther narrate the potential and pitfalls of God’s people living in Canaan including the devastation of the Exile due to disobedience and the resilience of God’s faithful love shown through God’s restoration of Judah from Exile.

A large portion of the OT is not set within a narrative framework. How do the Psalms, the Wisdom Literature, and the Prophets fit in the story?

The book of Psalms serves as the prayer and worship book for God’s people. The psalms reverberate with themes of God’s reign over the nations. Through lament, thanksgiving, and praise, the psalms encourage an expansive vision of the worship of God that ultimately climaxes in the concluding exhortation: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” (150:6). The psalms root God’s people in a vital worshipping relationship with the Lord, the creator of the world, and deliverer of Israel.

Israel’s Wisdom traditions serve God’s story by offering serious reflection on God’s creation and the good life. Wisdom deals with questions that engage all of humanity. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs have much in common with the wisdom of Israel’s neighbors. Wisdom is interested in navigating successfully through life. Since God created all that is, the wise can observe life astutely and deduce principles for living in God’s world. This focus on the human side of life makes it easy to connect Israel’s wisdom to culture. Yet, Israel’s unique contribution to the lore of the ancients is profoundly missional: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). The implication is this: careful attention to the human condition may prepare persons for the truth about God (cf. Eccl 12:12-14).

The Prophets (Isaiah—Malachi) contribute to the Israel’s story in three ways. First, Israel’s prophets continually call God’s people back to their roots as a missional community that embodies God’s holiness before the nations. The Prophets take Israel to task for failing to live as God’s people. Second, the Prophets maintain an international focus. The God of Israel is the Lord of the nations, and, as such the prophets speak words of both judgment and salvation to the nations. Provocatively, Jonah audaciously announces God’s love for even the most committed opponents of God’s people. Last, the Prophets envision a new future work of God’s salvation (e.g., Jer 31:31-34).

It is against the backdrop of Israel’s Scriptures that Jesus the Messiah enters the story. Jesus lives as the ultimate human being who fulfills in his life, death, and resurrection God’s creational intentions for humanity and everything that God had envisioned for Israel as God’s new humanity. Jesus’ death is for the totality of the Fall and his resurrection declares the ultimate victory of God. The Gospels narrate Jesus’ life and ministry to teach future generations of disciples what it means to follow Jesus. The core of Jesus’ message is the announcement of the arrival of God’s kingdom and his call to realign our lives in light of this reality (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:15; cf. Luke 4:16-21).

In the aftermath of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the risen Jesus sends out the church to announce and extend God’s salvation to the nations. The church is unleashed in the power of the Holy Spirit. The NT witnesses to the spread of the gospel across the first-century Mediterranean world. The scriptural story goes forth from the land of Israel to the nations in fulfillment of the Israel’s mission. The NT epistles serve as teaching documents for fledgling missional communities around the Mediterranean world.

The scriptural story ends with Revelation’s portrait of God’s future new creation (Rev 20-21).

Learning to understand the big story of the Scriptures is more than a descriptive task. The story of the Scriptures seeks to convert its readers/hearers to its perspective. The scriptural story invites its readers to understand their lives as part of its narrative.

The Missional Locatedness of the Readers

An interpreter’s social location serves a crucial role in the reading process. It may provide a fresh perspective for reading a text or it may distort a text’s meaning. M. Barram (“The Bible, Mission, and Social Location: Toward a Missional Hermeneutic,” Interpretation 61 [2007] 42-58) has argued that readers must locate themselves in mission. The biblical texts were written in a missional context. Participating in God’s mission enables contemporary readers to find common ground with the ancient text’s perspective.

Moreover, engaging in missional activity in the world creates new questions with which to engage the Bible and is crucial for learning to hear the text for both church and world. A practitioner of missional hermeneutic learns to listen to a text on behalf of the people for whom she or he serves as a witness. Missional engagement unleashes the interpreter to read a text through the eyes both of Christ followers and of unreached persons. The wise interpreter learns through missional praxis the sorts of questions that an outsider to the faith may raise when hearing a biblical text. Thus, the practice of reading the Bible from a missional locatedness trains us to read and hear the Scripture from contested spheres in the marketplace and not only in the realm of the sanctuary where we “preach to the choir.”

The Missional Engagement with Cultures

A third line of inquiry in the field of missional hermeneutic is the manner in which the biblical materials themselves model engagement with culture. We gain new insights about twenty-first century incarnational ministry by studying the ways in which biblical texts communicate to their context. For example, how do the creation stories of Genesis engage and subvert the dominant worldviews of Israel’s neighbors? How do the similarities between the narrative structure of Exod 15:1b-18 and the Baal Epic serve to promote Israel’s understanding of reality to their Canaanite context? How does Paul use existing modes of communication in the Greco-Roman world to enhance the persuasiveness of his writing?

The Missional Purpose of the Writings

A missional hermeneutic recognizes that the Scriptures exist to convert and shape their hearers. Most of us have been trained to read the Bible as the basis for doctrine and individual piety. A missional hermeneutic reminds us that Scripture is concerned with shaping communities of God’s people into outposts for the advancement of the gospel. D. Guder has been on the forefront of emphasizing this aspect. He writes concerning the NT documents:

NT communities were all founded in order to continue the apostolic witness that brought them into being. Every NT congregation understood itself under the mandate of our Lord at his ascension: “You shall be my witnesses.” … To that end, the NT documents were all, in some way, written to continue the process of formation for that kind of witness. They intended the continuing conversion of these communities to their calling—and that is how the Spirit used (and still uses!) these written testimonies. (“Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches,” Catalyst 31.3 [2005] 4)

Thus, we need to ask specifically how each text was intended to form God’s people into a missional community. Moreover, this is not merely a NT perspective. As shown above, the thread of mission runs across the biblical canon. Both OT and NT texts can be read profitably in terms of how they seek to form the people of God for the sake of God’s mission to all creation.

In his recent essay “Prophet to the Nations: Missional Reflections on the Book of Jeremiah,” C.J.H. Wright raised a related question: What does this text teach about the missional cost to the messenger? Wright expands the dimension of a biblical text’s teaching. Wright shows that the book of Jeremiah explicitly displays the personal cost to the prophet of participation in God’s mission. Raising the issue of missional cost is crucial as we seek to create a missional ethos in our congregations.

The Potential of a Missional Hermeneutic for Preachers and Teachers

  1. A missional hermeneutic provides a context and direction for preaching and teaching. Learning to read discrete texts within the grand narrative of God’s mission as described in Scripture provides a crucial angle for communicating the gospel. The interpreter recognizes that every text in the Bible helps to shape the people of God to serve as a missional community that embodies the character of God in, to, and for the world.In preparation for preaching and teaching, ask questions such as these: How does this text help us to understand God’s mission in the world? How do we need to change in order to live out this text corporately and individually? How does this passage serve as an invitation to the world to join God’s mission? What kind of persons does this text call us to become?
  2. A missional hermeneutic connects worship explicitly with life in the world by establishing a missional ethos for the community of faith. Learning to read the Scriptures through a missional hermeneutic keeps God’s mission on the front burner for all aspects of the community. Most profoundly it keeps the worship of the Triune God grounded in God’s missional intentions for humanity and all creation. Biblical worship at its core is profoundly missional. The aim of God’s mission is worship. Humanity was created to serve as God’s missional community before creation. As God’s new humanity, the church worships as a bold and daring testimony to the world of the greatness of God and as an invitation to unreached persons to become part of God’s new humanity for the sake of the world.
  3. A missional hermeneutic establishes a new framework for learning. As communities of faith struggle to break the grips of the paradigm of serving as inward-focused dispensers of religious goods and services to serving as outposts for the sake of God’s kingdom, a missional hermeneutic provides a different outcome for learning. “Christian education” is no longer merely learning facts about the stories of the Scriptures or grasping the basics of the historical creeds of the church. The goal of learning in the church now becomes a constant conversion to the message of Scripture so that each disciple can be shaped into the sort of person that she or he needs to become in order to participate fully in God’s mission in the world. All learning can now be set in the context of the missional reality of the twenty-first century church.
Suggested Reading

Barram, M. “The Bible, Mission, and Social Location: Toward a Missional Hermeneutic,” Interpretation 61 (2007): 42-58; Bauckham, R. The Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2004); Beeby, H.D. Canon and Mission (Trinity, 1999); Bosch, D.J. “Towards a Hermeneutic for ‘Biblical Studies and Mission’,” Mission Studies 3.2 (1986): 65-79; Brownson, J. Speaking the Truth in Love: New Testament Resources for a Missional Hermeneutic (Continuum, 1998); Guder, D.C., ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Eerdmans, 1998); Idem. “Missional Pastors in Maintenance Churches” Catalyst 31.3 (2005): 4; Hunsberger, G.R. “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping the Conversation,” Gospel and Our Culture Network Newsletter eseries 2 (2009):; Russell, B.D. “Missional Hermeneutics”; Wright, C.J.H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (InterVarsity, 2006).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

If you are married or hope to be, or preach, teach, or counsel such, this is a MUST read!

“A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. This is expressed in the sentiment that one would “do anything” for his family, even steal. The family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to be a sacramental entrance into his presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it. In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross, joy entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.” – Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, Chapter 5, p.90.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Outline of a Missional Biblical Theology

“The Glory of God is Humanity Fully Alive, and Life is Beholding God”                     (Irenaeus, 2nd century)

God, the Great King and Father, loves his creatures and creation and has a wondrous goal for them.  God intends to live with his creatures in loving community on this creation in its full flourishing!

God created women and men in his own image.  As God’s children we are created to be his royal representatives and caretakers for the well-being of creation.

Inexplicably, we have heinously turned our backs on our Father and Creator and forfeited this primal dignity and vocation.

Fortunately, God never acquiesced in our rebellion and set himself to both reclaim us from the bondage into which we have fallen and restore us to our creational dignity and vocation.

God called Israel through Abraham and Sarah to use this people to spread divine blessings to all nations and peoples.

Israel failed to be the people God could so use, save for one faithful Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth.

In and as Jesus Christ, God has come to do this himself by living, and dying as the creature he always intended us to be, freeing us from the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

By raising Jesus from the dead God vindicated Jesus as both truly divine and truly human.  We can be sure that in him God has poured out his own life for love of us; and that in him humanity has poured out its life for love of God.

By faith in Christ, we are enabled to receive God’s gifts of forgiveness (reclamation) and new life (restoration) and live as the community of royal representatives and creation’s caretakers God created us to be.

This community lives in hope for God’s new creation which we have tasted in Christ and long for the full feast that awaits us.

This community loves, living now the way of God’s new creation amid our not-yet-fully-new creation, is how we live out this faith and this hope.

God will use these acts of faith and hope-motivated love, purified through judgment, as “building material” for the new Jerusalem, God’s children who live and reign (Rev.22:5) with him forever on this new creation.