Review: The Peacemaking Church

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The Peacemaking ChurchCurtis Heffelfinger, (Foreword by Ken Sande). Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: Outlines a pro-active approach to peacemaking in the church consisting of eight principles that enable us to do our very best to pursue the peace and unity that is ours in Christ.

Church conflicts can be truly painful and leave deep scars on those who get caught up in them, especially pastors. Curtis Heffelfinger is one of them, and writes out of his own experiences of conflict, and lessons learned in working with Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker, who contributes a foreword to this volume. After a near fatal church conflict, Heffelfinger developed a pro-active approach to peacemaking that is “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). He contends that “the best fight your congregation ever experiences is the one you never get into in the first place”. Critical to that is the “eager” in Ephesians 4:3. Over fifteen years, Heffelfinger developed a culture and practices that set a priority on eagerly doing one’s best to maintain Spirit-given unity.

In the next eight chapters, Heffelfingers lays out eight biblical keys to his proactive approach, organized into three parts. In Part One, he focuses on three priorities that preserve unity in Jesus’s church, drawing upon Ephesians 4:1-6. First, he focuses on how we see ourselves as peacemakers–walking worthily, as the Lord’s prisoners, as one called by the Lord. Second, he focuses on the virtues of Ephesians 4:2-3–humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and eagerness–that ought shape our approach to peacemaking. Third, he considers the “right doctrine” on which our thinking ought be based–all the “ones” of Ephesians 4:4-6.

Part Two focuses on three pitfalls to avoid that threaten unity. The first, is anger–murder in the mind. He speaks of the festering rage that can be so destructive in conflicts. Second, he bluntly points out the scriptures that prohibit Christians litigating conflicts in civil courts. I’m glad for the inclusion of this chapter, having observed denominational leaders in conflict with a church (in the peace church tradition, no less) ready to go to court, and being surprised when 1 Corinthians 6 was called to their attention. Third, he turns from going before judges to being judges in the church in the area of disputable matters. He writes:

If you want to do the best you can to preserve unity in your church, you have to learn to think this way: Mine is not to change my brother’s mind; mine is to embrace my brother. We must do that whether he is strong or weak, eating or not, drinking or not, smoking or not, movie- and theater-going or not, and a host of other so-called gray areas, doubtful things, or principles of conscience the Scripture does not color in black-and-white. So the gist of welcoming as a gospel-shaped community is an ongoing determination to embrace others in spite of differences over morally neutral matters.” (p. 102)

Part Three focuses on two practices that foster unity. The first is intercepting relational disasters before they ever occur. He looks at the example of Abram in Genesis 13 as he deals with potential tensions with his nephew Lot, observing the pro-active, relationally centered, humble, and generous approach of Abram. Second, he focuses on the importance of honoring spiritual leaders, though imperfect, who work with excellence to serve. The complement to servant leadership is respectful followership.

The book concludes with a reflection on Psalm 133 and the images of the fragrant oil and the refreshing and life-giving dew that describe the goodness and pleasantness of dwelling in unity.

I’m not convinced that these practices will avoid all conflict but rather lay the groundwork for constructive differences that resolve into even more durable unity and deeper love. The work is one worth a read by every church leadership board, or even as part of preparation for church membership. It could be used well in an all-church seminar on peacemaking. Curtis Heffelfinger works from passage to passage, undergirding principles with biblical precepts, as well as personal examples that illustrate those principles. Heffelfinger models a vulnerability, a lack of self-protection that seems essential to peacemaking. This book is a good complement to Ken Sande’s work, which focuses on healing and restoring peace. Heffelfinger’s book is about preventive care for the church, preserving the healthy and delightful peace that is God’s gift to his people.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Getting Public Intellectuals Out of the Ivory Tower

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Who Are These People?

This week The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article on “The New Intellectuals” (premium content that may be unavailable) that contended that the academic jobs crisis may be a boon for the growing of a new group of young public intellectuals. What was curious to me is that for most, their primary means of expression was in literary journals, concerned with progressive issues.

What occurred to me is that most outside the humanities probably don’t know the names of any of these people and probably have not heard of the journals for which they write. Most of the journals had subscription bases of 5,000 to 10,000 (or less). What all this suggests is that these “public” intellectuals are only talking to a select group, probably an “echo chamber” of their views.

I think there is a similar phenomenon in intellectual Christian circles. On the one hand, it is encouraging that there is a vibrant group of thoughtful Christians seeking to think Christianly about contemporary society and writing articles and thoughtful books (some of which I’ve reviewed here). Once again, my sense is that with rare exception, particularly with some of those covering religion for major news media, most of these people are writing in journals with circulations under 10,000 subscribers (Books & Culture, which recently published its final print issue never had more than about 11,000 subscribers).

There are a few exceptions, yet I suspect many in the wider American public, let alone the Christian community have precious little knowledge of these folk. I am thinking, for example of Alan Jacobs, who recently wrote an article in Harpers asking what became of Christian intellectuals. There are others, like Marilynne Robinson, whose work was heralded by President Obama. Russell Moore from the Southern Baptists has had articles in major news media. Yet I wonder how many in either our churches or the general public would recognize other influential thinkers and writers like Nick Wolterstorff, Yale philosopher, or Miroslav Volf, a Yale theologian, or Makoto Fujimura, artist and writer, or English professor and film critic Alissa Wilkinson, to name a few?

You might ask, why does it matter? Most of us seem to be getting along without knowing who these people (or other Christian thinkers and writers) are. Or are we? There are many charges currently being leveled at white evangelicalism for its political captivity to one political party, and the implications this has for a loss of credibility among youth, ethnic minorities, and the wider culture. While I think further analysis is going to reveal a more complicated picture, what is troubling to me is the lack of a theological and intellectual framework in most of our churches that speaks into both parties and into our national (and local) life, as some like Russell Moore, Robbie George, Richard Mouw, Thabiti Anyabwile and others have sought and continue to seek to do.

Why aren’t we listening to people like these? I suspect it is because most of them have never appeared either on PBS or Fox. Many of us do give time to various media streams, but many do not choose to include thoughtful sources from the Christian community. I would suggest beginning with sources like Englewood Review of Books, Christianity Today, or First Things. 

I also wonder about the role of local congregations in our lives. At one time, pastors were considered a kind of public theologian or public intellectual. They fused biblical and cultural exegesis with a knowledge of their people with the aim that their people “be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of their minds” (Romans 12:2). I can’t help but think that pastors and other teachers in our congregations can do a huge job of bridging the gap between those serving the people of God as public intellectuals on a national scene and the people in our seats. Tools as simple as a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, or a podcast may provide a vehicle for posting articles augmenting weekly teaching in the church that provide a thoughtful Christian perspective–a third way of thinking transcending the polarized conversations in our culture. Inviting church leadership to read and discuss one or two stretching books (chosen carefully) can enrich the perspectives leaders bring to congregational mission.

It has always been vital for Christians to understand their times and how they should live. We need to give more thought as to who or what is shaping that understanding. In my own tradition, the scriptures illumined by the Spirit of God are paramount, personally reflected upon, and taught, studied and lived in our communities. I consider Christian thinkers as simply part of the “cloud of witnesses” who amplify and enrich the understanding being shaped in each of our communities, who also bring us into a broader conversation, set apart from the many other media voices clamoring for our attention.

*Left to right: Alissa Wilkinson, Makoto Fujimura, Miroslav Volf, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, all mentioned in paragraph 4 of this post.

[Tomorrow, I will continue on this theme, reflecting on the “formation” of a Christian public intellectual.]

An Interview with Timothy G. Gombis

Timothy G. GombisYesterday, I reviewed The Drama of Ephesians by Timothy G. Gombis. He is an associate professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and has a Ph.D from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

Dr. Gombis agreed to respond to questions I submitted to him via email about his book and his academic work. I appreciated his willingness (and promptness) in sending  responses to these questions, both of which appear unedited below:

1. How would you distinguish The Drama of Ephesians from other commentaries and books on Ephesians?  Why drama?

 The book is not really a commentary, but something more like a biblical-theological-cultural reading of Ephesians. A few things distinguish it from a traditional commentary. First, the book doesn’t merely situate the letter within a first century cultural context, examining its meaning within that setting. Many commentaries do this, and that’s an essential part of interpretation. The book situates Ephesians within the overall thrust of the Scriptural story of God’s redemption of humanity, so in that sense it might be a “canonical” reading of Ephesians. But it also recognizes that “meaning” happens when we read the biblical text within concrete communities of disciples seeking the heart and mind of God for his people and his world. So in that sense, perhaps it’s also an “ecclesial” reading. But I attempted to situate the letter within a contemporary cultural setting, letting the world of Ephesians interpret our cultural situation in order to determine how we might faithfully hear it as God’s word to our communities.

Second, I treat larger discrete sections of Ephesians rather than taking each verse or each phrase or clause. In a sense, it’s more thematic, but I tried to capture the overall thrust of the letter, knowing that detailed treatments of the text can be found in many other excellent commentaries.

I thought that “drama” was helpful when I began thinking of the sort of letter Ephesians is. It’s almost certainly a circular letter that Paul intended to circulate to a range of churches in Asia Minor (and beyond). And it was supposed to shape the life of each community that heard it and studied it and discussed it. So, the letter wasn’t supposed to be a reservoir of doctrine but a script for how gospel players were to go about living out (and living into) the fullness of the gospel. I thought that this whole framework was a helpful device to frame what Ephesians was supposed to do. When I began to explore the metaphor more fully, it opened up more possibilities than I had first imagined and I really found it useful.

2. You write about the heavenly warfare and the powers in Ephesians? How important do you believe this is for understanding Ephesians, and for the church in its life today?

Because the powers and authorities play such a major role in the argument of the letter (and in Paul’s thought, generally), it’s important to understand the role these figures played in the Jewish worldview shaped by Scripture. Now, because of how easily these figures can be sensationalized in our current American fantasy-oriented culture, we need to proceed with caution. We should not be looking for cosmic figures behind every car crash or power-outage!

In the ancient Jewish worldview, cultural corruptions, perverted ideologies, and idolatrous systems that enslaved nations were all thought to have their origins in cosmic figures that had rebelled against God. The crucial function of these figures is that in Scripture, systemic evils have intention behind them. There are large-scale corruptions in culture and in human relations and these evils and their attendant destructions all have a perverse enslaving logic behind them.

It’s not so important for us to talk about cosmic figures in our world today so long as we realize that even today we have enslaving systemic evils and corruptions that the church must discern, identify, and resist. We need to recognize the subtle ways that the church is tempted to compromise its identity and calling by God. The alternative is that the church naively assumes that culture is neutral.

A perfect example is contemporary American Christian participation in the national party political system. The system and its associated behaviors is perverted and corrupted. Christians need to realize that participation in the system draws one into the rhetoric of anger, demonization, and quests for power. If one is involved in such a system, one simply cannot practice love for one’s neighbor.

3. Can you say more about your scholarly interests and current projects on which you are working?

I am currently working on a commentary on Mark’s Gospel in the Story of God Commentary series (Zondervan). Most of my research is in Paul, so this is a bit of a departure for me, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I hope to be finished next August and it may be available sometime in 2017. I’m also exploring some more of the themes from Drama of Ephesians in a new book on Paul’s pastoral method (Eerdmans). I’m taking a look at how Paul pastored his churches given his acknowledgment of cosmic realities and given his dramatic conversion and the revolution in his thinking after seeing Jesus Christ raised and exalted by God.

4. In your book, you reference work with a congregation in Springfield, Ohio. How do you think your participation in the life of a local congregation contributes to your theological scholarship and academic teaching?

I think it’s crucial for professors and biblical scholars to be involved in the life of the church. And I don’t mean involved in speaking to varieties of churches or running big “ministry” organizations. Local congregational and parish ministry isn’t very interesting or sexy. The practices of peacemaking, reconciliation, and those associated with negotiating community life over a long period of time require that one develop wisdom and learn the ways Scripture orients and renews the life-patterns of a community. Sustained participation in a community helps one read Scripture with attention to this pursuit, and it helps biblical scholars remember that we’re most blessed when we’re involved in relationships of mutuality.

In the classroom, we’re used to speaking about Christian realities in the abstract. Living in actual community helps us remember that Christian realities simply aren’t abstract, and simplistic principles aren’t helpful for ministry practitioners who truly want to see God honored in their churches. My ministry experience has been immensely helpful in that way. It has freed me from the illusion that church life is easy and that ministry is straightforward.

5. If there is anything else you would like to say about The Drama of Ephesians or your scholarship and ministry that I’ve overlooked, that you think is important to know about you, I’d love to hear it!

Well, just the basics — I currently teach New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and I’m beginning my fifth year here. My wife, Sarah, and I have three kids. Two are in college and one is a junior in high school. We are currently involved in a ministry at our church that partners with other churches to help homeless families get into sustainable housing.