I Believe in "Natural" Theology, and Implications for Missional Ecclesiology

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1:1).



Something visible, tangible, tactile, complex, beautiful, expansive beyond our comprehension.

God created the universe we live in, and He created a special planet called Earth and special beings to bear His image on this planet.  Why, we may never really know.  But the fact remains that He did.  Creation exists.  And human beings have been created to comprehend, experience, and "have dominion" (Gen. 1:26-28) over it—even if imperfectly.  Although the Fall (sin) has seriously tainted our efforts, it has not abrogated this "creation mandate."  Nor has the Great Commission eclipsed this mandate.  Rather, the mandate is part of what it means to "disciple/make disciples of all nations."  To "exercise dominion" in a way that honors God's original intent for humanity is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  A disciple of Jesus is no less than a person who seeks to dwell in this creation in a truly human way.

"Exercising dominion" well requires observing God's creation and discerning how it works.  The disciplines of math and the sciences (physical, biological, behavioral, etc.) are in this sense theological tasks.  They are the study of what God has created, both the individual parts and the systems through which the parts relate. Such study, and the application of it, brings glory to God.

Once we concede that our sin and our finitude prevent us from comprehending God's creation purely or fully, we must acknowledge three facts: 

(1) that we are still capable of comprehending many things very well, 
(2) that we must therefore apply ourselves to comprehending God's creation to the best of our abilities (certainly in light of Scripture) and 
(3) that we must respond appropriately to what we learn.

If this all sounds too abstract, let me give one practical illustration, which happens to have been the impetus for this post.  There is a growing sense among many church leaders that the modern, Western church has gotten away from its 1st century roots and has taken on forms that distract from the Great Commission.  This growing faction is, generally speaking, anti-institution, anti-intellectual, anti-big.  But they are split as to the best way forward.  Some advocate an individualistic, "every person an evangelist" or even "every person a miniature version of the church" style of ministry.  Others go in a wholly different direction, pushing for an abandonment of gospel proclamation in favor of gospel demonstration, based on the premise that actions speak for themselves.  On a variation of this concept sit those who put their faith in an incarnational approach, wherein multifaceted love, given and experienced in the context of geographical, interdependent community, is the primary, if not virtually exclusive means of communicating the Good News.

Each of these philosophies of ministry address valid concerns and offer helpful correctives to our tendency toward overemphasizing our particular hobby horse.  However, each of them falls to the temptation of reductionism.  One major problem with each of these philosophies of ministry is their tendency to paint all Christians (forgetting that they are first human beings) with the same brush—to give them all the same function, same role, in God's kingdom (that of gospel herald).  This fails to account for each person's beautiful complexity and our tremendous diversity collectively.  It is a radically Western-modern-Individualist understanding of the "priesthood of all believers" (which by the way is not the "priesthood of each believer", as is commonly believed, but rather the priesthood of the Church collective as distinct from the "priesthood of the clergy" or the "priesthood of the church professionals").  It especially leaves little room in God's economy for those who have gifts of planning, thinking, writing, administrating, and other forms of "creating."  It leaves little room for those gifts that find their expression in complex, large-scale tasks which take lengthy, sustained effort—tasks like strategic planning, sermon-writing, and long-term vision-casting.

However, in God's economy (no less in His church), all gifts are necessary for the fulfillment of the Great and Second-Greatest Commandments and the Great Commission, and should be valued as such.  God has created each human being with a unique combination of personality, abilities, family history and so on, according to His sovereign purposes.  In each of us, God has created a complex being.  There is much more to us than "meets the eye."  God does not want us to ignore or belittle who we are as human beings, His image-bearers, but rather to understand (in addition to theology proper) ourselves, our world, and our unique place in it.

Let us abandon all attempts at devising a one-size-fits-all approach or formula for what "successful ministry" or "true discipleship" or "missional effectiveness" looks like.  The illustrations God inspired (breathed out) in Scripture concerning our collective calling are those of a "body" (an organism), a "kingdom of priests" (a counter culture), and a "spiritual house" or "temple" (a community) where God's Spirit dwells.  These metaphors have the greatest value and hold the greatest promise for shaping our missional imaginations and plans for turning those dreams into divine reality.

What do you think?  Do you feel overwhelmed by pressure to conform to the latest program or campaign your church is pushing as The Most Ideal Way to obey God's command to make disciples?  Have your God-given gifts and passions been overlooked, belittled or discouraged as you sought to use them to God's glory?  How might a vision of the Church as Body, Priestly Kingdom and/or Temple (not physical structure!) be embodied and experienced by people in your own culture and community? Please share your thoughts!

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