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Archive for January 2016

Skillen on Newbigin (and the Benedict Option)

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Internet chatter on the Benedict Option – conceived as creating new “monastic communities” plodding on as a counter-cultural force in a post-secular society – is rife these days. There is a palpable sense that given recent governmental moves in Western societies that severely restrict religious freedom in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular, the only option is to opt out of the public sphere and build new communities where Christian virtues may be freely practiced. Read here here, here and here. In this blog, it was discussed here.

But here’s why the Benedict Option may be missing the point about what it means to have effective Christian witness even under such challenging times:

Dr. James Skillen, writing in response to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s view that to develop a Christian society, “lay men and women” need to develop a “lay theology” for various fields of public life, says thus:

Then the apostle Paul writes to various churches and challenges them to live wholly in Christ, he frequently addresses believers in their capacities as husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and citizens (or subjects) in the political realm. But in those capacities Paul does not address them as lay men and women, implying that their identity in those roles is as ecclesiastical nonprofessionals. A “husband” is not a church lay person needing a theology for being a husband; he is a member of the body of Christ who has, among many different Christian responsibilities, that of being a husband. In this capacity, it is not as a church lay person that he needs a theology for loving his wife, but rather that he needs to understand God’s will for his role in marriage.

Precisely here, it seems to me, we should think not of applying some ecclesiastical truths to non-ecclesiastical areas of life, but rather, of taking seriously the way the gospel restores and illumines the meaning of God’s good creation. John’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and the letter to the Hebrews, for example, all begin by stating that the incarnate Son of God is the one in whom, for whom, and through whom all things were created. The creation is revelatory of God and connected to the Son of God prior to the incarnation and the organizing of the church. The good news of the Jesus Christ is, among other things, that creation has been recovered and is being restored so that it will finally come to fulfillment in the City of God.

The body of Christ is a communion of reborn creatures – of the renewed image of God. Marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life. In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words clay persons should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

The development of a Christian society, I am suggesting, comes not from a theology for Church lay persons but from obedience of the whole body of Christ in all areas of creaturely life where its members bear responsibility as they learn to live completely unto Christ. Of course the whole creation holds together in Christ, so the meaning of marital love, of economic stewardship, of public Justice, of medical healing, and of so much more hangs together in one meaningful creation, which has been distorted by sin but Judged and redeemed in Christ. The redeeming work of Christ redirects hearts and lives in all areas of life. Along with sound Christian theology, then, there should emerge sound Christian philosophy, obedient Christian political practice, healing Christian medical practice, and so forth. The adjective “Christian” in each instance refers not to theology as something added to an otherwise indistinguishable mode of worldly life, but indicates the genuine redirection, recovery, renewal of life among those led by faith in Christ. The Christian “way of life” should, in other words, appear different from the secularist way of life, the Muslim way of life, and so forth.

What will often be necessary as Christians seek to fulfill their earthly responsibilities in all areas of life are Christian organizations of parents, of farmers, of laborers, of academics, of citizens, and so forth. The purpose of such organizing should not be so Christians can isolate themselves or try to create a perfect community on the edge of civilization, but rather to develop consistent Christian practices in each area of life as they live side by side with people whose ways of life are directed by faith in other gods. The body of Christ is the people of God, lifting up all of creation’s treasures in every realm of existence in praise to God, looking and pointing ahead to the Christian society that will finally be revealed in its fullness when the Lord returns[emphasis supplied].[1]

What Skillen is saying here is that Christians are called to witness to the world in the context of their many differentiated responsibilities: as husbands and wives, as professionals in various fields, as members of a church, as members of a Christian NGO, as citizens of a particular country, as members of a Christian labor union or a political party. Christians take part in and help shape a creational order that Christ has renewed and is renewing – an order that is revelatory of God’s will and purposes. Thus, in the context of the redemptive work of the Gospel, the body of Christ is a communion of re-born creatures – of the renewed image of God – for whom “marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life.”

He adds:

In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words ‘lay persons’ should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

Christians cannot live in isolation from the world if they are to give justice to their differentiated responsibilities that they exercise as part of the redemptive work of the Gospel – and such work requires faithful Christian practice and presence across their various endeavors and roles.

[1] Is there a place for Christian politics in America? notes from a lecture given by Dr. Skillen to a philosophy class at the University of the Orange Free State in South Africa (2012). The lecture is a response to the work of Bishop Leslie Newbigin, a path-breaking missiologist. I am grateful to Dr. D.F.M Strauss, at whose initiative the lecture was made, for making available the notes to me.

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Written by Romel

January 12, 2016 at 3:43 am

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