together: going a bit deeper…

crowdAfter posting on the value of ‘living together’ and a personal response to the challenge, I wanted to try and root some of this thinking from the experiences of the people of God, specifically as shown through the Bible. I’ve posted before about how I view the Bible as a source for followers of Christ, challenging the concepts of infallibility, inerrancy and other big ideas, but it’s still really important for us to get a sense of the ways that people have experienced God at work in their lives.

My core argument here is that we are designed to be in community, that ‘personal salvation’ misses the point that God’s work of salvation is not just about getting our sins forgiven and us ensuring an eternity in ‘heaven’, but much more about redeeming and restoring the whole of broken creation. The former focuses on the ‘me’ and ‘my needs’, whereas the latter on ‘us’ and ‘our needs’. This, of course, is a gross simplification of these positions, but I just wanted to highlight the importance of deep, long term community against that which is merely transitory – perhaps focused on a weekly worship gathering. We may share a physical space with others, but if our focus is entirely on what we ‘get’ from the sung worship and the Bible message, and rarely if ever engage deeply and meaningfully with those around us, I think we’re missing a key aspect of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s a bit like the difference between passengers on a train heading somewhere as opposed to pilgrims sharing a journey to a sacred place together, learning from each other as well as from

Looking at the Biblical account of the people of God, right at the very beginning in Genesis, God says that it is not good for man to be alone, and creates a partner for Adam to share creation with. Whether ‘true’ or not, what’s important here is the message that we cannot live life focusing simply on ourselves and our own needs. As the story progresses through the Old Testament, God calls a whole nation into being – intended to ‘shine as a light’ in the darkness, calling others to recognise and join the true source of all that is good. The problem is that people miss the radical inclusivity of this message, and focus instead on ’purity’, so that we end up focusing on who’s in and who’s out, rather than recognising that all are in under this kingdom.

Jesus calls us back to this message as he forms a new community around him to share this revolutionary message. He chooses the last, the lost and the least as those who will spread the word and change the world.  He teaches us to be willing to give up our rights and even our lives for others.  As we lose ourselves – perhaps even our something of our individuality –  we gain so much more (as the disciples response to the interaction with the rich young ruler and how Jesus replies shows us).  What we give up, we gain through those we join with.

These followers grasp this message (despite a few hiccups) and become a transformative community who embrace the fringes so successfully that even the very centre of society was eventually radically changed. The earliest Christian writers have a huge focus on what it looks like to be community, how we should live and journey together. It’s clearly massively important – yes, there is more than this going on – but this forming of community is definitely central to what it means to follow Jesus.

The beauty of what happens across this story is that these communities are always deep places, where life is shared in all its raw intensity.   Happiness, grief, wealth, poverty.  When we gather with others we believe better – at times we even believe on behalf of those who can’t.  Our communities must be places of welcome, of challenge and and commitment to each other as well as God.   Key to all of those communities mentioned above is the reading of and interpreting of the stories of those who came before – theology must not a lonely, individualistic academic journey – it must be shared in the midst of real life.  After all, theology is trying to put into words what we experience.  It can never be a closed story, it must always be growing and changing and being shaped both by us and what we experience.

By doing this communally we create safe spaces in which a dialogue about all that is important can take place.  We become multi-rather than mono-dimensional in our understanding of life and God and everything in between.  Diversity brings beauty.

Living together is our natural default.  Our society praises and idolises the individual – and we’ve seen the consequences.  We’re called to reject this, to build something new, something radical, something counterintuitive.

That’s what excites me, what pushes me through the threshold of uncertainty that I described in the last post.  It is worth it. It really is.


13 thoughts on “together: going a bit deeper…

  1. Enjoying your thoughts being aired over the hols.

    What I right below sounds very grumpy – must be getting old but what I want to do is challenge you to think through exactly what you are claiming and why. I am happy to chat with you over a beer about sources of Christian knowledge and the significant differences between infallibility and inerrancy etc.

    Clearly the over emphasis in personal salvation has its roots in enlightenment evangelical protestant thinking. Interesting that the book of Revelation does not end at chapter 20 but that the Bible has two book ends – creation Gen 1 etc and Rev 21 etc new creation. As I try and drum into my students, Christianity is not about pie in the sky when I die, it is not about heaven it is about a restored community on earth. it is all about eschatological hope looking forward to a future fully restored community. This restoration will not come about chiefly through human effort but requires a recreation.

    However IMHO your thinking is very idealistic. Like many of the books around at the moment you write beautifully but what does it actual mean in my life tonight? What does a deep and meaningful engagement look like? furthermore I would argue that Jesus chose both the ordinary as well as the extraordinary to spread his message. Luke’s Gospel and Acts do emphasise women and the marginalised but the disciples were in general ordinary folk of the time, yes not the elite or powerful but still not the excluded and marginal.

    When I studied theology in the 90s postmodernism was the buzz word and rightly helped correct a deficiency in the modern church, today inclusivity is the new word and might be a good corrective but firstly that does not mean a total reject by focussing on it on of the past and in what ways are you not just a product of your modern western liberal culture of inclusivity – my real question is ‘did Jesus accept people unconditionally? did he allow them to carry on living their same lifestyles as before. in what ways was Jesus inclusive and in what ways was he exclusive?

    My other bug bear with all this is that may writers rarely if ever mention Paul and the rest of the New Testament so are they not guilty of having a bible within a Bible? are they just picking the bits they like? could I not pick the bits I like and build a totally different account?

    You know I am a communitarian and committed to trinitarian thinking, that the social trinity is the model for all community and that the indwelling of the spirit restores people to live in community but I think you now need to earth your thinking more in what you expect to see in a community living out their corporate christian faith Monday morning at 10:30am.

    My desire is to move beyond a naive idealism of ideas in order to foster the growth of a fresh community of faith based on a rereading of the biblical narrative in its fullness.

    Off for a cup of tea.

    1. Thanks, as ever for your thoughts. I want pushback – indeed, that’s the point of what I’ve been writing about over the last couple of posts. You’re the multi-dimension I need!

      I am being idealistic. Where I’m at now, however, is wanting to turn idealism into realism, and create something tangible as an expression of what I think a community modelled on this should look like.

      I agree with you – Jesus challenges those he meets who have broken the law to ‘go and sin no more’ – I think that’s a pretty clear point. However, what interests me is what we’d claim lies under this challenge as a ‘sin’ – so for me, homosexuality would not be included, whilst for many it would. I would look at unhealthy behaviour which doesn’t reflect what we understand of God – and in that sense I would want to challenge a lot of legalism that creeps in under Paul (or perhaps Pauline authors).

      So yes, I am picking and choosing in a way. As you know, I view the Bible in a very different way – so much of what I read in Paul seems to be about his baggage rather than reflecting what we see of the Jesus narrative in the gospels. There is, of course, hugely important and useful material here (I was going to use the ‘body’ metaphor as another example in my post!), but are they to be slavishly followed and enforced – no. I think the words of the the Bible are inspired, a record of the journey of God’s people, but I see our duty today as being seeking to discern and follow what the Spirit seems to be leading us to now (in the light of the historic relevation, of course).

      We do need that beer, my friend! Hope the results went well!


      1. me again,

        lots of points to work through.

        Foundational to all of this is how each of us understands the nature of the Bible and how it functions in the construction of our view of reality. There is a lot to talk about since I honestly do not understand what authority it has for you since you pick and choose what you like from it.

        I really do disagree hugely about Paul and his baggage, Paul’s letter’s deal with the early church wrestling with what it means to live in community. I think the epistles are of equal importance to the gospels because they are the first attempts to live out Jesus’ teachings in the real world. the gospels are primarily teaching narratives focussing on Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the Old Testament law. I think there is significant continuity between Jesus and Pauline teaching.

        Paul is wrestling with bridging Jewish and hellenistic cultures, exploring how the community of faith lives in different cultures.

        good to chat.

      2. Cool…let’s start with that word ‘authority’. What do you mean when you use it?

        On Paul – so you agree that women should keep their mouths closed in church?! Or do you pick and choose which bits you follow?!

        I totally agree – they are hugely important in showing us how the church wrestled with this new ‘thing’ they’d experienced. I’m just questioning how we use that today.

      3. Hi again, you were up late!

        Authority – a special source that has power over others, if something has authority then others must respond or follow what it says. This is different from a source of information since a person can decide whether to trust, use or follow a source. If something has authority then a person ought, must, should follow it. Authority has connotations of expert knowledge.

        One of the biggest issues with reading the epistles is that people read them ahistorically and so out of context. Here we enter the game of Hermeneutics. The epistles were written to real people in a particular situation. They were not primarily written specifically for me in the C21st Western Europe. We can not simply repeat the teaching without first understanding the context it was said in. A socio rhetorical reading of texts is important along with theological context. I do not live in the first century in the second city of Greece surrounded by hellenised populations drawn to the famous temples, schools of philosophy and trading ports of Corinth. I am not exposed to protognostic teaching of ‘enlightened’ beings and I have not been a subjugated citizen recently converted to Christianity. Church life is messy because it involves real people all of whom are complex and damaged people. Paul is speaking specifically in this context so I do not think his contextualised teaching for a church with problems in Corinth should be naively copied today but at the same time I do not ignore the teaching I wrestle with it to see what I can learn from it. I live in a world of tension between the then and the now also between certainty and faith. Will my interpretation of a text always be correct -no, that is why I need grace but I have a responsibility to wrestle with the text because I believe it is authoritative and therefore has power over me. I have a duty to engage with it. If I believe the bible is simply a source then I can pick and choose which bits agree with the values I have constructed from perhaps other sources which have authority over me unlike the bible.

        The church will always be messy and always get things wrong which is why we need hope and a strong eschatology. So many people have been damaged by the church that they give up on it which is sad. All theological wings of the church have some truth and we are naturally drawn to one which reinforces or confirms our own spirituality/personality.

        The danger is that the individual churches do not talk to each other or recognise that their version is not the whole truth. I want a church of the middle which draws from all traditions and recognises that it is full of hopeful and hopefully healing people who are slowly recovering from institutional church where systems rather than people are important and where power has been abused. We need servant leaders rather than leaders served. This is also why no one understanding of the atonement is uniquely correct. But I do believe the death and resurrection of Jesus did change the ontological nature of reality. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the basis of my hope. In the past we have over emphasised Jesus divinity and under emphasised his humanity. I do wonder whether modern corrections have sung too far in the other direction. We live a life of tension (the main lesson I learnt from my theology professors)

        I lean towards open theism where the future is semi open where god gives his creatures freedom to make choices, both good and bad and we have to also live with the consequences of the choices we and others have made. That is why the church is messy.

        I really like Dan Kimball’s writings as well as Scott McKnight’s stuff.

        I think you should look at some of the Anabaptist churches in America such as material byGreg Boyd an the meeting house concept from brethren in Christ (Canada) and their real house church structure (loads on YouTube )

      4. Ah – so we agree on what I’m saying here: I don’t ignore the text either, I wrestle with it too. That which doesn’t seem to fit the picture of the movement of God, we can move away from. That which is helpful we can embrace and incorporate into our understanding of God.

        As for authority – well, no – I no longer view the Bible as supremely authoritative – for all of the reasons you’ve explore so effectively above. It’s a fantastically helpful resource in guiding us, it carries authoritative teaching within it, but it stands as just one of the resources we have to guide us. I don’t think it has a specific claim to power over us. Nowadays I tend towards the Wesleyan Quadrilateral approach – scripture, tradition, experience and reason combining us to help us be faithful followers.

        I recognise as part of this that I bring my worldview to the text as well as anyone else, that there could be a tendency to simply pick and choose that which fits my opinion and ignore that which challenges me. On the other hand, I think that’s something every tradition has done over the entire history of this messy church thing.

        I loved Brian McLaren’s ‘generous orthodoxy’ – embracing, as you say, all the best parts of the rich tradition we follow on from. Richard Foster also explored this beautifully in ‘Stream of Living Water’. You’re so right in saying that we need that middle road to guide us faithfully in the right direction.

        Open theism does sound fantastic – what I’ve read of it, that is!

      5. I still think we have lots to discuss before we begin to go round in circles.

        Firstly, clearly you have a prior authority than the bible since you are able to identify what a move of God should look like which you then use to interrogate biblical texts. I’m interested to know what your prior authority is? If you accept the bible contains authoritative teaching how can it be identified?

        I’m happy to talk of multiple resources and although it is trendy to talk of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral it is probably the least worst approach. There are problems with it since reason is a second order activity since we use it to interrogate other resources. Traditions are just other people’s attempts to use reason to explore the tension there is between the bible and experience. So ultimately the quadrilateral becomes a binary Venn diagram. Along with one of my theological heroes, Stanley Grenz, I am happy to work with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral but also with him something has to be prioritised in the discussion so he talks of the bible as the normalising norm, not in the sense of a traditional foundationalist approach to truth but as the central hub of interlocking multiple dialogues. (He used the language of a web). Would you agree that you are prioritising experience over the bible? I would argue that these four potential sources are never applied equally by anyone one has to dominate.

        Be careful that you do not justify your approach by acknowledging that others do the same as you. That simply becomes the biggest group are right. But you are right to say it is messy and so it is important that dialogue takes place, not necessarily in order to convert others through reasoned debate but in order for all traditions to continually reappraise their position which may or may not involve modifications.

        At times your line of thinking is very similar to Joseph Fletcher who was the subject of my research masters. He identified love as the ultimate centre of existence from secular philosophical sources and then used this to identify which pieces of the bible were authoritative.

        The one question I would have ‘loved’ to ask him was ‘how do you know what a loving act looks like in a particular situation?’

        If I am honest I have tried to read generous orthodoxy a number of times and got bored every time! I like Fosters book and used to dip into it a lot before I lent it to someone.

        Thistleton wrote a very influential book called two horizons which explored the relationship between the horizon of the biblical text and the horizon of the reader. Roman Catholics talked about inculturisation in how one has to move from one to the other and the consequences of that. They acknowledged that all inculturation involves syncretism but some attempts are better than others. Ports tend to talk of contextualisation. The key issues remains how do we read and apply the text written in one context to another.

        On a slightly different topic, is still do not think that the gospel narratives earth the concept of community as well as the epistles Jesus and the disciples was not an ordinary community of faith it was a unique community.

        Happy to chat more but Ali is calling me to bed so chat more tomorrow.


      6. I love chatting with you Richard. It does my soul good! This is exactly what I want to do so much more of. We agree, disagree, wrestle, challenge, encourage. It’s beautiful!

        On reflection, I think I over-egged my dismissal of the Bible for effect – it clearly is important, but I was working towards explaining how I see it as part of the narrative, not the whole of it. The prior authority I see is simply God – and how do we know him? Well, I guess that would have to be through experience. So as it says somewhere (Paul?!) we should weigh up what we read (and hear etc.) and measure it against the plumb line that is the experience of God that the people of God have. The Bible is a record of that, which continues on through the tradition of the church etc. I think it was NT Wright who talked of us still being in the Acts of the Apostles even today – I love the openness of that.

        I’ve been a quadrilateralist since I first learnt about it over a decade ago – so I’m not sure it’s a trendy thing for me! In answer, as stated above, I go with experience…and yes, Fletcher and his situation ethics appeal to me, as do the ideas held in virtue ethics. I think we can hold these four components in tension (I too love this idea!) and be faithful. A challenging task, but surely that’s the point of faithfulness…not simply blind, unreasoned obedience.

        You may have misunderstood my point about how we all approach our experience of God differently. In many ways, where I am now puts me deeply into the minority section, rather than amongst the crowd. The biggest group are often wrong, I’ve found (something about defending institution and order over daring to be brave and shake things up!).

        Agreed on your final point – however, my point is that it shows the importance of community at the heart of use gospel message. Jesus chose a community to live and teach and serve…why was that? Couldn’t he have gone it alone (Son of God etc…!)?

        Let’s do that beer when I get back from London in a week. Next subject for posting should get you going too – living inclusively!

      7. Thanks for taking the time to get back on this.

        Actually we do agree on more than others reading this may think. I’ve been trying to work my way through these issues over the last few years so it is great to have a dialogue partner rather than just talking to the books I have been reading. I really like NT Wrights thinking in this area.

        A couple of questions for while you are away.

        What is the difference if any between faithfulness and blind obedience?

        How do we know what love looks like in a situation? Love is a label or description of an action but why is one action loving whilst another not? What defines love?

        This is similar to the weakness of virtue ethics, Aristotle saw virtues as means to an end, the telos being eudaimonia (happiness not pleasure) what is human telos and why?

        What does community actually look like in C21st?

        Have fun with the family while away.

      8. We should turn this into a new dialogical series on our blogs!

        I think that when I’m talking about blind obedience I’m referring to an uncritical and overly literal reading of the text and response to the workings/teachings of institutional religion. I think that we’ve been created with the ability to sift through all that we engage with in order to seek to be faithful. So faithfulness is a bit like going with the spirit of the law, not the word…if that make sense!

        You do thought the key problem with situation ethics – and that’s what makes it messy – and for me so important. It requires a fuller response to our circumstances than simply following a legalistic code. We have to think and feel our way through a situation – and perhaps get it wrong. This excites me – because we’re engaging with tension again, rather than avoiding it by trying to keep our noses clean.

        The loving response will therefore, of course, change. We look to mirror the love of Christ – challenging at times, transformative, nurturing and nudging at others. What is loving in any given situation is that which reflects Christ. Simplistic, but the best I can do at the moment. It could be painful, but still loving etc.

        Human purpose for me is to be part of what God is up to in his world – the missio dei.

        Community in 21st century? What it has always been. Deeply shared life. I’m old enough to think that although the internet facilitates some of this it doesn’t replace face to face reality. Lots to explore here.

      9. Hello my friend,

        I did not expect to hear from you so soon!

        I’ve had to dig out my MTh thesis and check up on fletcher and Grenz a bit more!!!

        In response to your paragraphs

        I agree with you a lot about spirit and law but at the very least past laws and regulations serve as examples to how we have to make choices in the present. You need to give examples how the spirit moves beyond blind obedience and explain why circumstances have changed but happy to go with you on this. Grenz suggests since the same spirit at work in us today also brought about the word the spirit may take us beyond the dictates of the law but never outside the law(when the law is properly understood) so for G adultery is never good or loving. There are absolute rules.

        I like paragraph 2 I think Fletcher himself may have said sin bravely (Luther said sin boldly). Fletcher was getting at the idea that ethics involves risk. Following rules is dehumanising because one is not involved in the process. Instead you become a passive victim of a rule. This is quite existential and I like it.

        Here is my problem with all of this. What does the love of Christ look like? We are to mirror what? You are right to say that it may be painful, but painful for whom. Love may indeed cause the focus of your love pain because either they do not understand why you are doing what you are doing or there may be actual physical pain. We are certainly called to imitatio christi

        Is love a thing, does it have substance, is it an orientation, is it an attitude, is it an intention. You need to nail a definition of what you mean when you talk using the word love. Fletcher only accepted agape as Christian love. Grenz’s comprehensive love involved all four Greek types of love.

        I do have a definition of love so I am interested in your take.

        Fletcher calls for a vocation of love (Eucharistic ethic of gratitude) but this has no emotion in it, it is a calculating rational love. Is love an act of the heart or the mind?

        To go further is not human purpose to become fully participate in the divine community. What the orthodox community by the spirit call deification. To realise fully our possession of the image of God is to participate in the community which lies at the heart of our identity. All this can only be fully realised in the future.

        What is your pneumatology – fletcher did not believe the spirit was a person but simply love. He merged the ontology and economy of the spirit together. Where love occurs the spirit is,

        You are meant to be on holiday go and play with the family rather than me.

      10. You must remember, Richard, that like you I’m all holidayed up…so this is fun!

        I would agree on moral absolutes such as adultery, murder (hence my pacifism!) etc. I guess a question would be whether the law constrains (as Paul says it teaches us how to sin in many ways [bad reading?] rather than freeing us) and whether the true law is love – love for God and for neighbour.

        How to understand and define Christlike love? Great question…one which I think is an ongoing, fluid and tension-full process. We will get it wrong from time to time, but primarily it’s about looking at what Jesus got up to and taught, and go from there. It will be painful. One of the reasons I find it hilarious at the use of the word ‘persecuted’ in relation to the loss of Christian (religious) privilege in the UK is that we’re not really winding enough people up for what we really believe in. We’d stop buddying up with the good and great, we’d be critiquing the ’empire’ – and we’d end up in the same place (figuratively, of course!) as Jesus!

        Love is a thing. It might be Spirit (thinking of the Johanine ‘God IS love’), but for me, it is THE thing. It starts for me with self-sacrifice, moves on to deep and costly concern and commitment to our world, and importantly for ourselves too (despite a willingness to lose ourselves to find ourselves). Love is both rational and irrational. Anyone who experiences it knows this. In some relationships we can’t help but love. In others, it is a concerted effort. Perhaps as we grow more Christlike, it becomes less concerted. Biologically (evolutionarily even!) we are wired to love because of the benefits it brings us and our DNA.

        Agreed totally with your paragraph on human purpose…am intrigued by what I’ve read of deification. Strikes me that it echoes ‘you must increase, I must decrease’ and the aforementioned ‘lose to gain’ idea. I do think that we can gain a flavour of this in the here and now, and should press towards it.

        Pneumatology – hmmm…cynical charismatic! Spirit is part of Godhead. What it is…well, that’s hard to put into words. Bible uses ideas like comforter, counsellor etc. Seems to me to be the continuous (if not always obviously so) presence of the divine now. So, love and goodness is the Spirit…if you know what I mean.

        This is fun!

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