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The following text was delivered to a gathering at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando on July 5, 2017. A hard copy of this text may be downloaded at this link.

 

The goal of this presentation is to provide a description and definition of Christian formation that reflects an Anabaptist perspective. Corresponding to common usage, the term “spiritual formation” is used here synonymously with “Christian formation.” In addition, and in accord with common usage, “spiritual formation” is the primary term used, until conclusions are drawn at the end of the presentation.

There is a compelling need for the treatment of this topic. Models deriving from two streams dominate literature on spiritual formation emanating from authors identifying with the Western Church. One stream is medieval pietism, which focuses on the believer’s relationship with God. Examples found in this stream include the works of Roman Catholic moral theologians as well as the writings of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and A.W. Tozer. The other stream is Reformed theology, which focuses on one’s behavior toward God. Flowing within this stream are writings from Calvinist authors like J. I. Packer and John Piper. However, this stream also includes works by authors who retain the “two-step” paradigm introduced by John Wesley. This approach to spiritual formation stems from the teaching of Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, and has been propagated by his students with dogged effort. This presentation proposes that spiritual formation from an Anabaptist perspective is not so much a third stream, but a coherent theological and historical bridge between the two prevalent streams of thought. In other words, it provides a more than satisfactory option for one to consider.

The presentation proceeds along the following path: First, following a brief recitation of Anabaptism’s origin and significance, the author explains what he means by an Anabaptist Perspective. Second, from a position within that perspective, the author gives the features of an Anabaptist model of spiritual formation. In so doing, it will be necessary to consider the topic of discipleship, and the place of disciplines in this scheme. Finally, the author will propose a definition of spiritual formation based on the contributions coming from an Anabaptist model of spiritual formation.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANABAPTISM’S ORIGIN AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE

Contemporary Anabaptists trace their origin to the 16th century Reformation movement distinguished by its insistence on believer’s baptism, hence the moniker Anabaptists or re-baptizers. In addition, these reformers advocated a radical imitation of the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, with special attention given to the Sermon on the Mount. They based this conclusion on the conviction that Jesus had inaugurated the promised messianic kingdom during his earthly ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and session.

The Anabaptist insistence on a “believer’s church,” though, put its adherents in direct conflict, not only with Roman Catholics, but also with Protestants, both Lutheran and Reformed. This conflict, in turn, boiled over into opposition from these three groups’ governmental protectors, with whom, in practice, they were effectively merged.[1] When this opposition came to a head in the form of persecution, Anabaptists’ radical adherence to the teaching and example of Jesus prohibited them from active resistance, resulting in widespread deaths.[2]

This brief account of the origin of the Anabaptist movement reveals in seed-form the two most apparent ways in which the practices of its members differ from that of members of contemporary Protestant faith traditions: Anabaptists maintain that the New Testament requires of disciples a level of commitment to Christ’s Kingdom mandating (1) strict separation of church and state and (2) non-resistance or pacifism.

Contemporary Anabaptists are represented primarily by Mennonites and by most groups with the word Brethren in their name.[3] However, their influence can be seen among Baptists and most free-church groups.[4] Evidence for this influence exists not only in the widespread practice of believer’s baptism and in various expressions of the separation of church and state, but also in the adherence to Anabaptism’s teaching on the symbolic nature of the ordinances and the visible nature and autonomy of the local church.

AN ANABAPTIST PERSPECTIVE

The preceding account identified two Anabaptist distinctives: separation of church and state, and pacifism. These, and other, distinctives arise from a particular theological perspective.

The perspective, or story, an interpreter inhabits and, therefore, from which the interpreter reads a text profoundly influences one’s interpretation.[5] Put another way, (more…)

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Christian Vocation is

the  birth           and      growth
     creation        and      formation
     initiation      and      development

of the story of a disciple and kingdom citizen subject to the Lord Jesus Christ,

within the story of  the people of God,
within the story of  the messianic kingdom of the Son of God,
within the story of  the triune God—creator, redeemer, and reconciler

by means of
     being           and      doing
     knowing         and      living
     relating        and      obeying
     communing       and      resembling

that reflects exclusive allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ

animated through the power of the promised Spirit of God.

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NECESSARY ELEMENTS TO A DEFINITION

Divine Focus
Divine Plan—The Gospel

  • Restoration of Edenic Shalōm
  • By means of establishing the Son’s Reign
  • Through His incarnation, life, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension, and session as Lord and Christ the King
  • Resulting in reconciliation
  • Marked by forgiveness, freedom from sin and death, and the power of the Spirit

Divine GoalRelationship and Resemblance
Two sides of the same coin: the means to and evidence of each other

  • Relationship: Communion
  • Resemblance: Godness, Christlikeness, holiness, obedience

Moral Character – Matt 22:36-40, Summary: Love God and love people
Virtues—the inner life or being: affections, attitudes, thoughts, and motives

Ethics—the outer life or behavior: decisions and consequent words and actions

  • Affecting God, including His creation (Gen 1:28; Rom 8:19-22)
  • Affecting People: Both friends and enemies
    • Relationships with individuals
    • Relationships with social groups, both near and far: family, church, neighborhood, community, region
    • Relationships with power structures, both near and far: economic, political, military

Human Responsibility

  • Active, ongoing, obedient faith, including repentance, in God on the basis of the Gospel
  • Nourished by spiritual disciplines, including suffering and life in community
  • In which one progressively creates a new story through mentoring relationships that include encouragement and warning

These elements give rise to possible . . .

ALTERNATIVE NAMES

Christian Formation, cf. its Moral Character
Christian Vocation, cf. its Divine Focus
(M-Webster, “vocation”: a divine call to the religious life)

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The overarching theme of God’s story is shalōm. God created a Kingdom characterized by shalōm: complete-positive-peace. But, humans destroyed shalōm. The Old Testament provides an ongoing testimony to that destruction. Nevertheless, God promised a reign through which he would re-establish shalōm. He inaugurated this reign through Jesus of Nazareth, whom He made Lord and Christ. Christ accomplished this work by initiating the New Covenant. The New Covenant ushered in perpetual jubilee marked by reconciliation based on liberty from sin and oppression

God freely grants citizenship in this Kingdom—and the reconciliation it entails—apart from any merit. Instead it comes through the free and conscious exercise of faith in God on the basis of the Gospel: God’s promise of reconciliation through forgiveness and restoration.

Faith is ongoing trust or allegiance that necessarily includes repentance—departure from sin—and discipleship—following in all areas of life Christ’s example and teaching as well as the teaching of His apostles. It is made possible and required by the new birth, resulting in progressively knowing and resembling God.

Disciples have undivided allegiance to one king and to his one Kingdom. They are a holy nation that rejects all thoughts, words, and actions that would compromise this allegiance. For example, they neither seek to interfere with the affairs of earthly kingdoms nor do they seek protection or endorsement from those kingdoms.

However, they do seek to influence society prophetically: They proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom, welcome new citizens, nourish one another’s faith, and prophetically rebuke, by word and non-violent action, society’s values and actions which depart from those of the Kingdom.

These disciples assemble in counter-cultural communities characterized by love: unity, peace, and mutual commitment. They demonstrate this commitment primarily through good works, including instruction, encouragement, correction, discipline, and restoration. In addition, they share with one another their material resources, which is possible, since they live simply.

Assemblies regularly practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These signs represent and commemorate the Gospel, and, therefore, nourish the faith of participants and witnesses. In addition, they signify the believer’s identity with and commitment to the unified local body of believers.

Baptism, specifically, is the rite of initiation into discipleship and into covenantal membership with a local assembly of believers. It symbolizes and recalls the baptism of the Spirit believers experience at conversion. It also pictures cleansing, death, birth, and resurrection, resulting from the pledge believers make to Christ at conversion. Therefore, only those who have exercised voluntary faith in Christ are fit subjects for baptism.

The most prominent marks of discipleship include truth-telling, kingdom living, and peacemaking. First of all, one who follows Jesus practices and tells the Jesus, since Jesus is the Truth. Furthermore, Jesus commanded his disciples to speak the truth, a command profoundly emphasized by his forbidding oaths.

Kingdom living for disciples accords with the values of perpetual Jubilee: They make disciples. They also help and comfort the weak, needy, and helpless. Furthermore, they separate from evil, particularly worldliness—the desire, pursuit, acquisition, maintenance, and use of power in order to receive glory and praise.

Finally, peacemaking must characterize the disciple’s life. Peace is both the goal of disciples’ words and actions as well as the means whereby they achieve that goal. Therefore, they pursue peace, unity, justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness. They neither resist violence nor retaliate against its manifestations. Jesus’ actions and teaching, and those of his apostles, provide the basis for this life-style.

Jesus inaugurated God’s reign in order to re-establish shalōm, the complete-positive-peace which characterized his creation. This overarching theme of God’s story—shalōm—characterized the story of Christ, both his teaching and example: He taught and prayed that his disciples would live by love, peace, unity, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and nonresistance, insisting that peacemaking and forgiveness are necessary components of faith and discipleship. In addition, he consistently practiced love, including loving His enemies and doing good for them. He also modeled nonresistance and non-retaliation. He did not punish His enemies; he loved them and did good for them—He died for them, whereby he obtained reconciliation and peace with God for all people.

Therefore, disciples love: They love one another, and they love their enemies and do good for them. They seek reconciliation, peace, and unity with one another and all people, even at the cost of personal suffering. For example, they do not settle their disputes in earthly courts, but they rely on the wisdom of the assembly. Furthermore, they alleviate human distress and suffering. But, they do not oppose violence with violence, despite whatever form of greater good the violence purports it will achieve. Specifically, disciples will not use lethal force in behalf of any kingdom such as a nation-state.

The preceding text is a summary of “Anabaptist Spiritual Formation Salvation History: Cosmic and Personal, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.”

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The Most Prominent Marks of Discipleship—Progressive Holiness—Include Truth-Telling, Kingdom Living, and Peacemaking. Truth-telling is the correspondence of one’s words and deeds. Jesus, the Truth (John 14:6), perfectly embodies this correspondence. One who follows Jesus, then, practices and tells the truth.

In addition, disciples seek to fulfill their obligations as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom and, therefore, as Christ’s servant and subject. These obligations correspond to the values and principles of Christ’s Kingdom, including perpetual Jubilee. First of all, then, they seek to obey Christ’s command to make disciples. They also strive to help and comfort the weak, needy, and helpless, especially those from these groups who are disciples. Furthermore, they separate from evil, particularly worldliness. Worldliness is especially clear in that set of behaviors which generally governs social relations: desiring, pursuing, acquiring, maintaining, and using power, for the purpose of receiving glory and praise.

Foremost of all, disciples make peace—they neither resist violence nor retaliate against its manifestations.

The Overarching Theme of God’s Story Is Shalōm. The same holds, then, for the story of Christ and the stories of his followers. Shalōm (complete-positive-peace) is the promise and goal of the messianic reign. Accordingly, peace, unity, justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness are central to the teaching and example of Christ.

Christ was foreseen as the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6). His advent was announced with an angelic blessing of peace (Luke 2:14). Immediately before His arrest and consequent death, Jesus prayed for peace and unity (John 17). During His earthly ministry, as did His apostles, Jesus taught love, peace, unity, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, and nonresistance, which corresponded to his insistence that peacemaking and forgiveness are necessary components of faith and discipleship (Matt 5:9–10, 44–45; 6:12). In addition, he consistently practiced love, including loving His enemies and doing good for them. He also modeled nonresistance and non-retaliation, which finally led Him to death on a cross, whereby he obtained reconciliation and peace with God for all people (Rom 5:1, 9–10).

Jesus’ actions and teaching, and those of His apostles, provide the basis for disciples to live in love, including loving one’s enemies and doing good for them, as well as living in reconciliation, peace, and unity with one another and all people (1 Cor 7:15; Eph 2:13–16; Heb 12:14), even at the cost of personal suffering. Rather than punish His enemies, He loved them and did good for them—He died for them. Suffering and painful providences, therefore, are the disciple’s normal expectation (1 Peter 2:21–23; 4:12–13; 2 Tim 3:12).

Disciples, those who live out their stories in the story of the Kingdom, seek peace. It is both the goal of disciples’ words and actions as well as the means whereby they meet that goal. For example, disagreeing believers do not appeal to earthly courts to settle their disputes, but they rely on the wisdom of the church (1 Cor 6:1–11). Furthermore, believers seek to ease human distress and suffering, but they do not oppose violence with violence, whatever form the violence takes. Violent opposition to violence, especially lethal force performed in behalf of a king in competition with Christ, such as a secular nation-state, or in the name of a so-called “greater good,” is unjustified.

You may access Part 1 here, and you may access Part 2 here.

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