Ministry or ethics?
Perhaps I’m perverse, but I really quite enjoy the first week back at work after holidays.
I don’t have super high expectations of myself. I know it will take a while to get the brain working, and to remember what it is that I am being paid to do.
And it’s one of those times of year when you have the excuse (in fact, the obligation) to pause and think about what you should be doing. To strategize a little. To plan and prioritize.
This is excellent, and definitely more fun than actually working.
So I’ve pulled open the digital equivalent of the musty manilla folder with all my writing ideas in it, and started to rifle through it. What should I write about this year in The Payneful Truth?
There are digital notes and scraps and half-written ideas on a whole range of subjects:
on the wisdom and folly of crowds;
on the common impulse (including in my own breast) to soft-pedal on fraught moral issues so as not to be hated;
on the nature of Christian maturity as growth in faith, love and hope;
on the cult of environmentalism, in which everyone educated in the last 20 years has been enlisted as a devotee;
on the relationship between preaching and the Bible (amazingly, I have something fresh to say about that);
on why Christians can appreciate the good impulses in both progressive and conservative politics, while also seeing the fundamental shortcomings of both;
on what Titus teaches us about the imperatives of ministry;
on whether or why we should keep the livestream going once we’re fully back in church together (if that ever happens!);
and much, much more.
It’s a pretty disparate list.
There are practical ministry ideas, theological issues and discussions about discipleship; but there are also issues that would normally be classified as personal or social ethics.
Having such a broad range of possible topics is generally a no-no in the world of newsletters and podcasting. Pick your lane and build your audience. That’s the standard advice. Write about ministry or theology or ethics, but don’t try to do all of them at the same time.
I’ve thought about this more than once over the past 12 months. Should The Payneful Truth be mainly for ‘trellis and vine’ types who want to discuss ministry? Or should it also delve into the ethical complications of living as a Christian in the world?
Which lane should I pick?
It seems to me that the road we’re called to walk down as Christian believers has more than one lane, and the dotted line between them isn’t so clear.
Take the division between ‘ministry’ and ‘ethics’. It’s true that most people tend to be more interested in one or the other, as revealed basically by what they talk about all the time (and the articles or links they share online). It will be about the latest issues in evangelism or preaching or discipleship (on the one hand), or about climate change or US politics or transgenderism (on the other).
In my own life, there’s some history and heritage here. The evangelical movement I grew up in, swirling around St Matthias and Campus Bible Study, had a reputation for giving a high priority to gospel ministry, to the point where not much else got a look in.
It was a caricature—the reality on the ground was much more nuanced—but most caricatures possess a kernel of truth. In fact, back in the 90s, there was a joke going around that made fun of the differences between well-known churches in Sydney:
How many people does it take to change a lightbulb at Barnies Broadway? “Well, there are two views about that …”
How many people does it take to change a lightbulb at Christ Church, St Ives? “We’re not sure; we have people who do that.”
How many people does it take to change a lightbulb at St Matthias? “We don’t change lightbulbs; it’s not a gospel issue.”
Of course, how we live in the world is very much a gospel issue, because the grace of God teaches and trains us to live a new life (a lesson those of us who were at St Matthias in the 80s and 90s knew by heart). And the imperative to disciple others with the gospel of Christ, and how we do that, are very much ethical issues. They are questions of love and truth.
We can’t talk about gospel ministry without also talking about what it means to preach the gospel to people whose hearts are captured by, say, environmentalism. And we can’t talk about environmentalism without talking about the resurrected Jesus Christ who rules the world, and the hope of a new creation. In fact, we can’t know what it is about environmentalism (if anything) that is significant or worth talking about without the re-orienting wisdom of Christ, which teaches us to make judgements about all things (1 Cor 2:15-16).
In other words, gospel ministry is really a form of ethical thinking and action. It proceeds from a biblical understanding of what is good and true (in Christ), and seeks to speak and act in love on the basis of that truth.
And (on the other hand) ethics is a form of theological reflection and action. Ethics makes no sense for Christians unless it is driven and shaped by the biblical truth of Christ crucified. We approach every issue, every thought, every word and every deed in the name of Jesus.
We shouldn’t compartmentalize the two, or dichotomize them, although it is common to do so. I learned this while I was doing my PhD.
My project was to bring the framework of theological ethics to bear on a ‘ministry’ practice. I wanted to investigate the ‘one-another word ministry’ of Christians, and understand it theologically. But I was exploring an action with moral significance—one that we are urged or commanded to do, that takes place under the banner of love, that can be done well or poorly, and so on. The field in which you explore the theological nature of moral actions is ‘ethics’.
But very few people in ‘ethics-world’ are much interested in what we call ‘ministry’; nor for that matter do many people in ‘ministry-world’ bring the intellectual tools and frameworks of theological ethics to bear to understand what they are doing. In Stephen Jay Gould’s expression, ‘ministry’ and ‘ethics’ often function as ‘non-overlapping magisteria’.
This made the whole PhD project both delightfully interesting—I was exploring an open field which no-one had bothered to map before—but also rather tricky, in terms of satisfying the expectations of the academic guild.
I managed to navigate my way through, which was a relief to all concerned.
That’s what I plan to keep doing here as well—to keep mining that wacky ideas file of mine for Payneful Truth posts, without worrying too much about which lane I am in, or whether I have a ‘ministry’ or ‘ethics’ hat on. In the end, the two hats sit on the same head, which should be striving to understand and speak about all things from the perspective of Jesus Christ.
There’s a challenge in this for me, and for all us.
The test of whether something is worth thinking and speaking and writing about is not which category it fits in, nor whether you or I find it interesting, nor whether it’s the thing currently dominating the news or being plastered across social media. (As I write, it’s whether Australia Day should be moved from January 26 or not.)
The test is this: Will speaking the truth in love on this subject (such truth being grounded in the biblical revelation of Christ) serve to build the body of Christ—to move people towards knowing him, and to fortify and encourage them towards maturity in him?
There’s a reason to get back to work.
As we get a new year underway, I’m wondering if I can ask a favour. Could you copy the following paragraph, paste it into an email and send it to ten Christian friends? (One of the things that is occurring to me as I start this new year is that I haven’t done enough to tell people about The Payneful Truth.)
Hey, I’ve been really enjoying this newsletter/podcast thing from Tony Payne, and I think you’d like it. There’s a free subscription as well as a paid level. You can sign up at thepaynefultruth.online.
Or your own words to that effect.
And if you haven’t gotten around to subscribing yet yourself …
I’ve got a decent list of subjects to think and write about, but I’m always looking for more—and especially those that are particularly exercising your minds and hearts. Please send in your questions and ideas so that I can slot them into the program. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s photo was taken on the Hay plain in western NSW—one of the longest, straightest and most boring drives I can remember doing (with five children in the car).