Tertullian, Love Feast, and Social Ministry

Excerpt from Tertullian’s 39th Apology

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Tertullian (160-220 AD)

The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by purchase, but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.

Much of the context of this quote is on the Love Feast. At the time, the Love Feast (think perhaps “Sacramental Potluck”) was a normal part of Christian worship and some were charging Christians with being wild drunken folk. Tertullian is making the point that the love feast was shared, charitable, chaste, self-controlled and started as well as ended with a prayer. But further, moneys gathered within the church were done to help those in need. The love feast was an act of worship, but it was also an act of charity since the sharing was equal, not based on what one had to give.

The Love Feast was referred to by Paul, by the Didache (by implication), Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, and others.

Raised a Baptist, we have a lot of potluck dinners. And many other churches have similar things. Sadly though, we tend to do them with a bit of a chuckle— a bit of pride and embarrassment. But perhaps, we can see it (or make it):

  • An Act of Worship
  • An Act of Charity
  • An Act of Brotherhood

But I hope it would be all three. It has a sacramental role in terms of worship of God. It is an act of giving to and caring for the needy. It is an act to remind ourselves of our spiritual unity in Christ.

 

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Inward, Outward, Upward

The book “Encountering Theology of Missions” by Ott, Strauss, and Tennent, has been a very beneficial read for me. One section I especially like is where they look at missions in terms of “Kingdom Communities.” They could have said “Church,” but I suppose they wanted to avoid people who picture the idea of church too narrowly, rejecting small fellowships of believers, or perhaps sodality structures or even (maybe) cyber-communities.

They suggested that such communities should operate with three dimensions that could be marked as axes on a cube. The axes are:

  • DoxologyCube
  • Evangelism & Discipleship
  • Compassion & Social Transformation

In the table below, I listed some ways of looking at these dimensions. There is considerable simplification but still I think it an be useful.

  1.  Doxology. I showed it here as Worship. Ott (and his coauthors) described the guidance as The Great Calling. In terms of Direction, it is focused Upward… toward God. And I see it as a Heart activity. Of course, it is more than simply a heart activity, but some aspects of worship drift into the other dimensions.
  2. Evangelism & Discipleship. I show this simply as Discipleship. As the Engel Scale would indicate, one can see Evangelism as one aspect of the overall activity to develop disciples. It takes it’s guidance from The Great Commissions (especially the Matthew version of it). Direction-wise, it can be seen as focused Inward. As Kingdom Communities, they are bringing people in and develop those who are in these communities. It can be seen as a Head activity. Although discipleship (and evangelism) is truly holistic, it’s most characteristic quality is in terms of faith, belief, understanding, and repentance. These, right or wrong, are often seen to be more of thinking (as opposed to feeling or doing) activities.
  3. Compassion & Social Transformation. I show this simply as Compassion. It can be seen as primarily guided by the Great Commandment (although the Golden Rule wouldn’t be inappropriate either). It can be seen as especially Outward-directed, even though these same ministries may be directed inward to the community, or drawing inward of those outside the community. I put it here as a Hands type of ministry. Even though Compassion may be viewed as a feeling, it is only recognizable in terms of action.

Cube TAble

Looking at the cube, the Yellow face, the plane established by discipleship and compassion, is much like the quadrant I use when talking about holistic ministry (where the axes are spiritual ministry and social ministry). You can see it’s use in the Videos on Social MinistryVideos on Social MinistryVideos on Social Ministry.

So I could call the yellow plane as Holistic Ministry. The problem is that I am not sure what to call the other two planes– the Pink one (Discipleship and Worship), and the Orange one (Compassion and Worship).

Any ideas in that would be appreciated.

 

HCICD — Holistic Church-Initiated Comdev

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Years ago when I was looking into a topic for my dissertation, I wanted to study, utilizing grounded theory, HOLISTIC CHURCH-INITIATED COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, in the Philippines.

In the end, I dropped it. I switched to studying Christian medical missions events here in the Philippines. The main reason for this was that I had trouble finding many examples of holistic church-initiated community development. Generally one of three things exist:

  • The ministry is not holistic. Ministries from churches tend to be spiritualistic or tend to be social, but rarely do a good job of bringing these things together to deal with the whole person.
  • If the ministry is holistic, it is not normally church-initiated. It tends to be a ministry initiated by NGOs, or cooperatives, local government, or international agencies. Often,
  • If the ministry is holistic, and church-initiated, it is not community development. It is often church-development. That is, the focus is on developing or growing the church, not primarily helping people or the community.

I prefer holistic ministries, but some ministries are always going to be more limited. And there is nothing wrong with some programs being initiated by groups other than churches. But the last one is more my concern. Many churches struggle conceptually with the idea that they should place greater focus on people rather than the success of their church.

And this is a general problem that often comes up with people and organizations all over the world, and I will repeat it here:

ONE SHOULD NEVER PLACE AN INSTITUTION ABOVE PEOPLE.

One should not put the church above people inside, or outside, the church

One should not put one’s government above people

One should not put the institution of marriage above the individuals in the marriage

One should not place the Sabbath above those in need

Anyway, our counseling center is utilizing “ihug” with Celebrate Recovery for dealing with those struggling with illegal drugs. I like the fact that it seeks to be holistic (S.O.S. — Social, Occupational, Spiritual). They prefer for it to be church-initiated (although not required). And the goal is for it to be missional… benefiting those in need with no requirement, explicit or tacit, that the local church will gain directly from the ministry.

Not a bad idea.

Consciousness One Two Three

Harvie Conn wrote the book. Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue back in 1984, based on lectures he gave at Fuller Theological Seminary. It has been noted by multiple people, that Conn was limited by a tendency to use rather unclear language. That is one reason I have tended to like the work of Paul Hiebert. He often did much better in making complicated concepts… well… less complicated.

However, one strength of this book is thatapplication-communication2 although written in 1984, it does appear a bit prescient in identifying some trends that have continued to develop over the last 30 years.

Conn chose terms Consciouness One, Consciousness Two, and Consciousness Three. Frankly, I did not feel they were explained well, but they seemed to point to generally valuable insights in the rlationship between theology and anthropology (as well as mission).

Below is how I tried to explain these three concepts to my students. If someone says “Bob, you got that completely wrong,” I would welcome correction, as long as you can make it clear…

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Consciousness 1. Ethnocentric Mindset. A non-Western culture is seen as a “Disease to be Cured.” Non-Western arts were commonly seen as devilish. Missionary work is seen both as an attempt to Share the Gospel, and to “Civilize” (bring in line with Western culture). In fact, it was difficult for many to separate the Christian faith from Western culture. Three reasons for this difficulty:

  • Western culture was assumed to be the highest culture, and the “most Christian.”

  • Other cultures were seen as lower cultures, and bringing them in line with Western culture was seen as aligning them with the Christian faith.

  • Commonly those of other cultures were also deemed to be lower– both intellectually and morally.

Mission work was seen as sharing the gospel in non-Western lands, because the Western world had “already been reached.” Because of this Americans and Europeans are active missionaries, and other peoples are to be passive receivers of the message.

Christianity will always look foreign to people from non-Western cultures.

Consciousness 2. Indigenization Mindset. There is now no necessary presumption that the West has all of the answers. Rather different cultures are legitimate. Christianity may exist in a different culture through appropriate TRANSLATION of the message and theology from the West.

Religion is seen more positively in a culture (Consciousness 1 tends to see religion as a problem… both by secularists and even by Christian missionaries). However, there is a tendency to see culture as made of of individual institutions… including religion. Therefore, to transform culture means to replace (indigenize) those things that need changing, and leaving alone those things that don’t.

Greater focus is placed on plurality of cultures (rather than “cultured” versus “uncultured.”) Also greater recognition that cultures and languages are fluid… changing.

There is a recognition of “Contextual Theologies,” but often see them as existing in local competition of sorts to “Real Theology,” based on the presumption that the theological formulations of Europe and America are in some sense supra-cultural.

While cultures are more respected in Consciousness 2, the agenda still is primarily driven by the West, in terms of theology and missions.

Consciousness 3. Contextual Mindset. Harvie Conn never really defined this one well. He focused on problems in the early 1980s and what he hoped would change.

Not only are there many cultures, and they exist dynamically, but each exist holistically. That is, one can’t just break the culture apart into different components or institutions. Religion is an integrated with the culture, not a separate part.

All theology is contextual. There is no such thing as supracultural theology, only well-contextualized theology and poorly-contextualized theology.

The translation model of of theologizing and ministry is inadequate because it is uni-directional. Rather, there needs to be dialogue between cultures, as well as tri-logue between theology, anthropology, and mission.

Different contextual theologies (and expressions of faith) are challenged by the canon of Scripture. But different contextual theologies need to be in dialogue– challenging each other and allowing the possibility of learning from each other.

Missions is now a whole world task to the whole world.

 

The “Fish” Model of Project-based Outreaches

A model for doing not only medical missions, but many forms of short-term projects (partnered with a long-term ministerial presence) looks a bit like a fish (or an ICHTHUS if you prefer). It is based somewhat on the model used for CPM (Church-Planting Multiplication). The same basic principle can be utilized.

Visioning/Organizing

Rapid Seed Sowing

Filtering

Consolidating

Expansion

This comes from my book “Principles and Practices of for Healthy Christian Medical Missions: Seeking the Church’s Role for Effective Community Outreach in the Philippines and Beyond”

ICHTHUS

A: The idea of a medical mission comes to one person or a small group, and there is the decision to attempt to move forward with the idea.

B. This is the team-building phase. Buy-in is developed within the community and with outside help. Partnerships are developed and plans are worked out.

C. Others are told about the mission. The community is invited and the outside team supporters are told and encouraged to pray and help in tangible ways. Eventually a maximum number of people are involved as the entire community (ideally) is involved or invited, and the outside team is sent off.

D. This describes those involved in the medical missions. This number is smaller because not everyone who is invited actually comes. In the Philippines approximately half to 2/3s of those invited actually come (at least in rural areas).

E. This describes those who respond to the Gospel based on assent. In some cultures, this assent is to the Gospel (expressed perhaps in saying the “sinner’s prayer,”) In some cultures, such as the Philippines, this sort of response may be made without any real conviction. As such it may not be the most useful guide for follow-up. However, it is important to keep records of all who attended and all who made this decision.

F. It is also useful to find a narrower filtering of those who come. This may be with a desire for Bible Study, or for home visitation. In the Philippines, for example, many will express an interest to “pray to receive Christ” as a way of expressing gratitude for the medical care provided. However, there is no such feeling of debt to agree to a Bible Study (for example) so it is often a better guide for community spiritual response.

G. After the medical mission, the hosts can do follow-up. They would probably start with Group F as priority, then to Group E, and finally Group D. However, in all likelihood those who actually act on their spoken decision will be smaller than the other groups. So for example, in the case of a Bible Study, one may have hundreds attend the medical mission, with dozens responding in faith, and perhaps 2 or 3 dozen desiring a Bible study. Of these, perhaps 10 or 15 actually respond. These can be put into 1 Bible study, or perhaps 2 growth groups, or maybe a handful of accountability groups.

H. It is from the core group G that growth will occur with multiplication of small groups, or development of house churches, or creation of a church, or whatever.

Why Evangelicals Struggle With Social Justice…

Consider the quote from Billy Graham a few decades ago:

“I am convinced that if the Church went back to its main task of proclaiming the Gospel and getting people converted to Christ, it would have a far greater impact on the social, moral, and psychological needs of men than any other thing it could possibly do. Some of the greatest social movements of history have come about as a result of men being converted to Christ.” (Quoted by Rodger Bassham in “Mission Theology: 1948-1975 Years of Worldwide Creative Tension,” 226)

These needs– social, moral, psychological–9781592440269 certainly makes sense. Perhaps if “converted to Christ” actually meant a radical leaving behind of what is old, and following Christ, such needs would indeed be met, and may even overflow into broader society as “salt and light”. But overall, Graham’s statement hasn’t really stood up well to history. As a black minister stated around the height of the Civil Rights movement infor the US,

the “law did for me and my people in America  what empty and highpowered Evangelical preaching never did for 100 years.” (Ibid., 227)

Many like to point to William Wilberforce, an Evangelical Christian,  who fought to end slavery in the British Empire in the early 19th century, and also fought for many other issues of social justice. But  for every Wilberforce, there were scores of Evangelical Christians historically who stood against social justice. Christians in the Southern United States, for example, took a very different stance to Wilberforce. Consider the quote by an Evangelical preacher from the mid 1800s:

“Let us then, North and South, bring our minds to comprehend two ideas, and submit to their irresistible power. Let the Northern philanthropist learn from the Bible that the relation of master and slave is not sin, per se. Let him learn that God says nowhere it is sin. Let him learn that sin is the transgression of the law; and where there is no law there is no sin, and that the Golden Rule may exist in the relations of slavery. Let him learn that slavery is simply an evil in certain circumstances. Let him learn that equality is only the highest form of social life; that subjection to authority, even slavery, may, in given conditions, be for a time better than freedom to the slave of any complexion. Let him learn that slavery, like all evils, has its corresponding and greater good; that the Southern slave, though degraded compared with his master, is elevated and ennobled compared with his brethren in Africa. Let the Northern man learn these things, and be wise to cultivate the spirit that will harmonize with his brethren of the South, who are lovers of liberty as truly as himself: And let the Southern Christian– nay, the Southern man of every grade– comprehend that God never intended the relation of master and lave to be perpetual. Let him give up the theory of Voltaire, that the negro is of a different species. Let him yield the semi-infidelity of Agassiz, that God created different races of the same species– in swarms, like bees– for Asia, Europe, America, Africa, and the islands of the sea. Let him believe that slavery, although not a sin, is a degraded condition,– the evil, the curse on the South,– yet having blessings in its time to the South and to the Union. Let him know that slavery is to pass away in the fullness of Providence. Let the South believe this, and prepare to obey the hand that moves their destiny. (“Slavery Ordained of God,” by Rev. Fred A. Ross, D.D., 1857, pages 6-7)

Truthfully, I chose this quote as one of the more balanced, less bigoted, supporters of slavery. I could have chosen much worse. For example, I could have chosen a quote by Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander Stephens, of the same Protestant denomination as Ross, in a speech he gave challenging the notion that all are created equal:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” (Cornerstone Speech, Savannah Georgia, March 21, 1861)

I, instead, chose Ross’ quote because it shows pretty clearly one major reason that Evangelicals struggle with social justice–

#1.  Evangelicals have a tendency to support the past or the status quo. Evangelicals often idealize the Primitive 1st century church. Others may idealize the Reformers, the Puritans, or perhaps the church in the 1950s (among other times). <Perhaps this explains the tendency of Evangelicals in the United States, to align themselves with the American political right. Despite great areas for potential conflict, both groups tend to mythologize a preferred past.> In the previous quote, what Ross here was saying was that slavery is not an ideal thing, but since it presently exists, it must be ordained by God to exist, and so to take action to end it, is to act against God. Rather, we should support the status quo, and be prepared for slavery to disappear… in God’s own timing. The title page of the book is instructive as it quotes Romans 13:1, “The powers that be are ordained by God.” So social injustice exists because God wills it to be that way… at least for now. Unfortunately, to look at the present and at history as expressing God’s preferred ordained state of things, essentially blesses injustices, and tends to make us blind to the same injustices that those of the past were blind to.

Frankly, however, we should learn from the past. We should look at the, illegal actually, expulsion of Cherokee native Americans from the Southeast United States in 1838-1839, (well-described today as “The Trail of Tears”) as a great evil, unjustified Biblically, and unconscionable regardless of their citizen status. When we look to today and the future, we should learn and grow from that, and Evangelical Christians, above all others, should be horrified by the possibility of multiplying this horror with “carte blanche” executive expulsion of millions of those without citizen status in the US.

#2.  Evangelicals often have a poor theology of social justice because of the prioritization of evangelism. The term “because” is an admittedly loaded term, since there is no automatic causal relationship between the two. But there is  certainly a connection. If one takes the five major attitudes (theological perspectives) that Christians have regarding social action (avoidance, convenience, social gospel, ulterior motive, and holism), the most common tend to be Convenience and Ulterior Motive. Convenience view is that social ministry or social action is fine, even commendable, as long as it does not get in the way of “real” Great Commission ministry. Ulterior Motive view is that social ministry is great and justified if, and only if, it can be used to direct people to “real” Great Commission ministry. Great Commission ministry I am using to describe the three-fold description from Matthew 28 of conversion, baptism, and spiritual training (and am not here going to deal with the question of whether these are the only valid GC ministries). Both Convenience and Ulterior Motive viewpoints devalue social ministry or social action. What we don’t prioritize, we don’t value. What we don’t value, we tend to do poorly.

Additionally, some take a view like Billy Graham did in his quote at the top of this post that suggests that if people are successfully evangelized, social ministry and social justice will tend to take care of themselves. This hasn’t proven to be true. The early church struggled immensely with societal issues. They did not “just get worked out.” In fact, Evangelical groups often unwittingly perpetuate injustices. It has long been noted that the growth of Evangelical or Charismatic groups in Central America has had little to no impact on societal evils. Part of this comes from the common Evangelical viewpoint I like to call “Apocalypticism’– I mean by that the idea that if this world will pass away, and a new heaven and earth will endure, present sins and injustices really don’t matter all that much. We need to focus on that which is spiritual and eternal. This view sounds good, until we test it against Christ’s declaration of an imminent Kingdom of God, and the call of Christians to be a part of the call towards radical transformation, both within and without. While I do agree that history does not appear to support a post-millennial view of social progress, to simply embrace a Jainist or Hindu (Kali yuga) inevitability of cosmic corruption, or perhaps a Benedictine view of separation from the world, is ultimately inconsistent with our call as Christians.

#3. Evangelicals tend to like to generalize social problems. One might call it whitewashing… an intentional minimization of social concerns. Evangelicals have difficulty transitioning from abstract truths to practical truths– they are better at dogma than applying dogma to praxis. Consider the movement in the US in the last few months, “Black Lives Matter.” A lot of Evangelicals expressed dislike for the term, preferring to say “All Lives Matter.” While the second statement is certainly true, it is also part of the long-standing tradition of maintaining blindspots by using general, although true, language. In the 1800s, Christians could tacitly support slavery while speaking vaguely about the “brotherhood of man.”  Consider the (American) Declaration of Independence that starts out as

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The initial draft of the Declaration of Independence had a paragraph on concerns regarding slavery and race. While admittedly, the language is mixed– both inspirational and a bit racist– eventually, this was stricken from the final version. It seems that those (commonly Christians, or Christian-influenced Deists) who sought to retain slavery, wanted to remove explicit condemnation for enslavement, while perfectly happy to keep ambiguous, high-sounding statements of human equality and unalienable rights.

Sadly, general language promotes blind spots. Here in the Philippines, for example, there has been a rash of extrajudicial killings (criminal homicides) of those involved in the drug trade. If Evangelical Christians want to sound good while maintaining a blindspot, they can talk about the “sanctity of human life” or “All lives matter.” But if they want to face the problem directly rather than ignore it, they should say “Drug lords lives matter” or “Drug dealers lives matter.” I really don’t expect to hear that language anytime soon.

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William Wilberforce was a great champion of social justice, in part, because he did not generalize. He did not simply say that all men have rights… he focused a light on the deplorable practice of black slavery. He did not simply talk about the well-beings of laborers, but focused attention on specific abuses such as in child labor. He did not simply express support of justice, but supported specific justice and reform in how prisoners were handled. He did not talk vaguely about good Christian stewardship of Creation, but (actually) supported legislation protecting the well-being of farm animals.

Wilberforce, did not presume that the past or the present define God’s preferred future. He did not assume that the “powers that be,” ordained by God, don’t need to be challenged and held accountable to serve God and the public good effectively.

Wilberforce did not a focus so much on the hereafter that his theological understanding of God’s call to Christians is muddy and sporadic. One might say that he saw that Lord’s prayer “… Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as not just a passive wish, but a call for personal commitment to partner with God.

A commitment to evangelism, churchplanting, and discipleship does not demand a watering down or half-hearted commitment to social justice.

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