At the Acts 29 Europe conference in Rome in April this year, the following resolutions on theological clarity were made. Because of contemporary pressures, the conference focused on three critical issues: the image of God, the uniqueness of Christ and justification by faith. The aim was to:
- Honour all that the Bible says about our attitudes, beliefs, ethics, structures and lives because anything less is a rejection of the Lordship of Christ, and anything more is a rival to his Lordship
- Promote theological thoughtfulness and precision in our all our churches.
This is all well and good. I know that as a church planter, I want to do that, as I’m sure we all do. Who would want to be theologically muddled? Or plant or lead a church that is? Yet I am not convinced I have pursued this as intentionally as I ought. As I have thought this through since Rome, I have come to see that theological clarity is my responsibility as a leader and that it ripples out in concentric circles from me. If I read Acts 20 and the Pastoral Epistles correctly, I have ‘to keep a close watch on myself and on the teaching and persist in this, for by so doing I will save both myself and my hearers.’ (I Timothy 4.16).
The life of the leader is central, and then the teaching (n.b. the definite article) and then the people. And what is at stake is the salvation of both the teacher and the hearers. Let’s take these concentric circles and see what it would look like to be carefully intentional about theological clarity in each of them.
1. The Planter-Pastor
My heart: I resolve to read well and widely in order to keep the faith
Theological clarity in the church starts in the devotional and thought-life of the planter-pastor as he reads the word and lets it transform him. Here is a motto I should have always before me:
Thus says the Lord:
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is the place of my rest?
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things came to be,
declares the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66.1-2)
My attitudes: I resolve to grow in winsomeness and humility, avoiding sneering arrogance
Reading the word deeply, praying the doctrines in, stating them well and clearly in public situations will surely flow out of these verses in Isaiah. And reading thoughtful books well and attentively also. My reading list should not be a diet of random articles picked up on a twitter feed or stumbled across on a blog. It should be planned and substantial so that it can be shared with others.
Theological clarity in the church starts in the life of the planter as he reads the word and is transformed by it.
Tim Keller recounts the story of the Seminary where the doctrine of inerrancy was disputed by a minority. The majority who started out convinced of inerrancy ended up voting that the Seminary adopt a non-inerrantist position because of the arrogance and gracelessness of the proponents of orthodoxy. If our theological clarity on what are doctrines of grace does not make us humble, winsome, gracious, bold and loving, then there is something deeply wrong. Of course, even when ‘in everything we adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour’ (Titus 2.10) by our lives and attitudes, there will be some who wander. But that is no excuse not to pay careful attention to how we behave and how we speak. Sadly, church-planters are not always known for their circumspection.
My tone: I resolve to rejoice in the positives
Theological clarity is about being convinced and loving regarding what God has revealed to be true and beautiful. To the extent that we love what the bible teaches, communicating that love and enthusiasm in ways which fully connect with our congregations, to that extent we will convince our churches and lead them well. All the bible teaches is ultimately about how God gets the glory and we get joy. Psalm 119:97 expresses it perfectly: ‘Oh how I love your law! I meditate on it day and night!’ Make that joyful note the melodic line of your church-plant from day one.
My rigour: I resolve to be clear on the negatives
CS Lewis said that the main problem with people is that they don’t know how to think. This is nowhere more apparent that our amazing ability to believe contradictory things simultaneously. Often it is not until someone points out the glaring inconsistency that we realise it. Jesus being the only way means that all the other ways are not, in fact, ways! The authority of the bible means, that there is no other ultimate authority. Salvation by faith through grace means there is no room at all for works: ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ (Ephesians 2.8-9). A biblical-creation view on gender and sexuality is incompatible with any other view.
Church planter there is no excuse not to pay careful attention to how we behave and how we speak.
My scope: I resolve not to dumb down
Our job is to teach the whole counsel of God. As children of the Reformation, we reject the idea that some of God’s truth is only for the initiated. The most sublime heights of doctrine and theological reflection are always ultimately practical and help us follow the path of holiness and mission more faithfully. I am called to present everything we know to the people of God and the world. If people don’t understand me, it may be my fault, not theirs. I must work at complicated and seemingly remote theological ideas until they are crystal clear and accessible, whether through illustration or example. In this way I am listening to Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 2.15: ‘Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.’
2. The teaching
Our partners: I resolve to guard the teaching ministries carefully
I don’t think I know a pastor or church leader who doesn’t regret letting somebody lead in a ministry where their teaching has in the end turned out to be either unclear, unbiblical or just plain dangerous and heretical. I plead with you, especially in early days in a church plant – guard all teaching positions jealously until you have had sufficient time to assess character, orthodoxy, unity on essentials with the church’s statement of faith, vision, values, and submission to church structures. The temptation to move quickly will be almost irresistible. But please believe me when I say that the anguish of putting this right retrospectively, clearing up the mess, seeing some led astray, bearing the responsibility of it and having it go through your mind on an almost daily basis for years after is far worse that being patient and doing due diligence. 1 Timothy 3.8-10 applies to all who would serve in the church: ‘Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless.’
Our rootedness: I resolve to remember church history
The creed, the historic statements of faith, the five solas of the Reformation – all of this reminds us that the church has always battled for theological clarity. By integrating these into our corporate thinking and worshipping, we educate and safeguard our churches and we ensure that the essential doctrines are regularly before us.
Our praise: I resolve to pay careful attention to the gospel-centredness of the songs we sing
Andrew Fletcher famously said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” Planters and preachers need to take this seriously. It is not for nothing that Colossians 3:16 reads: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.’ Songs either promote or undermine the word of Christ. Vigilance is needed, and sadly only intermittently exercised. We need to ask if the thoughts, attitudes, emotions, behaviours and aspirations expressed in the songs we sing mirror what the bible says and how the bible says it.
3. My hearers
The generations: I resolve to pay careful attention to children and youth ministry
We need to teach the gospel with theological clarity and appropriate depth to all, including our children and youth. If we teach moralism and legalism to our children, and if we try to impress gospel through amusement and silliness, we create a gap which many find hard to bridge later on. Preparing a good lesson for Sunday School with 6 year olds is in some ways harder than preparing a sermon, but it is just as vital.
The culture: I resolve to engage with the issues of the day
Some of the arcane material in the New Testament on food sacrificed to idols, circumcision, festivals appears to be the most remote to us – and yet it was the most relevant application of the truths the biblical writers had to address in their day. The more we have to explain it today and give it context, the more it is clear that the authors were theologically clearest on the hottest issues of the day which they were eager and determined to engage. Instead of being cowed by the world and afraid of addressing contemporary issues, we should be eager to address them biblically in all our teaching formats, particularly to the gathered church. Ironically, the things we instinctively shy away from will be the things that will attract and linger.
One of the threats to theological clarity is the internet with its stream of unedited unreflective content.
The media: I resolve to promote good books in an internet age
One of the biggest immediate threats to theological clarity today is the internet with its endless stream of unedited unreflective content. Promoting good websites and denouncing bad ones are tactics which are effective for a short time and ultimately ineffective. We need a deeper strategy, what the bible calls discernment, and this only comes comes through testing ideas against sound doctrine. Paul addressed the church in Philippi in this way: ‘Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.’ and to Timothy he said ‘Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.’ The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture means that we teach our churches to think, to discern and to be able to reject the 90% of what they will hear and read. We must teach method and show our working-out, without falling into the trap of being academic. As far as books go, it is statistically very unlikely that all the books published in today’s Christian cottage-industry are good. Most are average. Many probably shouldn’t have been published and sold, and would have done very well as blog posts. Some are wrong, but may make their way into the hands and minds of our people anyway. But when we find a book that is genuinely good, we should promote it fully so that we all learn together and rejoice together in the greater theological clarity that it brings us.
The mundane: I resolve to engage graciously with everyday theological inaccuracy
How many times a day does a planter or pastor hear someone – a believer, or someone on the way to becoming a believer – say something that reveals that there is a gaping hole in their theology? Every conversation is a teaching moment, but we need to be light of touch and gracious. We need to find ways consistent with our personality, without becoming ponderous and pedantic, to realign and adjust these slips. Perhaps by rephrasing, or by circling back around to the issue in question, or by asking a question for clarification. The times when I have had the energy and courage to do this – for the reasons I don’t are often laziness and cowardice – people learn and are appreciative. 2 Timothy 2.24-25: ‘And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.’
The audience: I resolve to please God rather than people
I remember early on in ministry being invited to preach in a church attended by a well-known and famously precise French theologian. People asked me if I was worried. Part of me was, of course. But every week we preach, God hears us. And the people we are called by God to feed, hear us. Their lives will, in time, reflect the impact of our teaching, for better or for worse. That is, or should be, much more intimidating than any theologian. Theological clarity is ultimately thinking God’s thoughts after him and communicating them as best and as accurately as we can. It is ultimately a response to his great love to us, as we seek ‘to please him in every way.’ (Colossians 1.10)