Thinking Theologically

By Mark A. Taylor

Our theology affects all our actions and decisions—how we live and serve and react and decide. But do most Christians and Christian leaders define their decisions by their theology?

Can we do this? How? Why should we try?

For answers we talked with four church leaders and Bible scholars:

• Ben Cachiaras, senior pastor with Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland

• Frank Dicken, assistant professor of New Testament at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University

• J. K. Jones, pastor of spiritual formation with Eastside Christian Church, Normal, Illinois

• Jon Weatherly, dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, Knoxville, Tennessee

Excerpts from our discussion follow:

Is it really possible to think theologically about every aspect of life?

Frank Dicken: A lifetime of Christian formation is thinking theologically. As I think about my own life, I realize that, after growing up in a church and participating in church leadership, you begin to do things and speak things differently than other people. There’s a natural assumption that just comes with the way we live after we’ve been formed by the church and by the Scriptures.

02_covINTERIOR_1_JNJ. K. Jones: The older I get, the more I recognize that if we’re not intentional about thinking theologically, then we’re in a whirlwind of a mess. Thinking theologically is thinking with God in mind.

A. W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

Ben Cachiaras: Everybody’s a theologian all the time whether we know it or not. Everyone has a theology that has formed their living, thinking, behaving, choices, interaction, and view of reality.

Just because we’re not aware of our theology at any given moment doesn’t mean we don’t have one. The fish may not be aware it’s swimming in water, but that doesn’t mean the water isn’t there.

I think thinking theologically is an invitation to say, “What water, in fact, are we swimming in?” If the stuff we’re in doesn’t match with what we believe, it could be we have not been truly shaped by the Word and led by the Spirit; the mind of Christ isn’t in us. We need occasionally to jump aquariums and get ourselves into a different way of thinking, behaving, and living that is shaped by who God is and what his vision is for the kingdom.

Everybody has a theology?

Cachiaras: The issue is intentionality. We can argue about whether your theology is right or wrong, and I think that’s a really, really important question.

But even before that, it’s the awareness that the actions we take are implying a theology.

For example, we live in a society that, in contrast with cultures before us and [cultures] around the world, is quite individualistic. We tend not to think about community or the communal identity as primary. This has led to a whole fascination with personal rights: I’m the center of what’s important; my personal happiness is what’s important. And that has a bunch of other implications. We are very lonely. We don’t think communally in spite of everything the Scripture says about a communal way of thinking.

The water we’re swimming in is individualistic. To think theologically would be to say, “How might we counter the environment that is the dominant culture around us? Do we realize we’re swimming in this water of individualism?” Until you think theologically, you won’t ask such questions.

But Scripture invites us to jump out of the aquarium and say, “Let’s live in a different way.”

Jones: Years ago Elton Trueblood said, “The chief way we are disloyal to Christ is when we make small what he intended to make big.”

The fallout is serious when a Christian is not saturated in the Word and continually cultivating a relationship with God. If that is not ongoing, we have a lot of Christians running around who are anemic, who are small in their worldview, who are combative and petty.

Dicken: We’re talking about sanctification. We believe sanctification is the process of becoming holy. What this really means is belonging to God. The sanctified life is the life that reflects the true reality of the true God.

One phrase from the Lord’s Prayer captures this succinctly for me: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). What am I supposed to do and be in order to stay in sync with what God is doing in the world?

Some may think of theology as a hair-splitting discipline that’s looking to trip people up on the footnotes and the minors. But, in fact, it’s the revolutionary notion that the God of the universe became incarnate in the lowly human Jesus of Nazareth and gave himself over to public torture and death for people who didn’t deserve it, fully identifying with people in their weakness and their rebellion and their need.

To the degree I contemplate that and consider all its implications, I think I see the will of God beginning to be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

02_Taylor_panelists_JNJon Weatherly: The understanding of God I have through the gospel of Jesus Christ compels me constantly—compels anyone constantly—to see every interaction with another person as a call to serve that person, to give my own life for the sake of that person. The transformative element of practicing theology is the way we see those personal interactions as shaped by the message of the cross and the reality of who God is in that way.

To move that specifically into something like marriage, I could look at what Paul says about marriage in Ephesians and Colossians and immediately I understand. Why should husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her? That’s the essence of the gospel, and so that’s the nature of how that’s lived out.

When I see that Paul says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), I see this is how Christ reveals and inaugurates God’s rule in the world. He did that through the cross; that should shape all my personal interactions, all of my relationships. There should be a conscious aim and pursuit of everything I do when I’m with other people.

Dicken: I have another example. It is a particular challenge for me as a professor to understand my students as my neighbor. It’s easy to love very good students who are motivated and do their work, but the challenge for me is seeking out those students who aren’t doing well and who present particular challenges to me in classrooms and in my office when they’re sitting across from me with a list of excuses.

It’s hard to balance the role of professor with this very real theological proposition that I’m called to love them and, as Jon said, “Give myself to them.”

Jones: Here’s my example: As is true in academic circles and in any larger church staff, conflict happens. Staff members don’t see eye-to-eye, and there’s a collision of ideas and frustrations.

But Christ, in his death, burial, and resurrection, gave us a unity we’re called to maintain.

How does God’s nature and character speak into this? For me, that’s not as elusive as it might sound. That really calls for us to think differently. Neighbor is the right term. How do we treat each other as neighbors in the midst of disagreement?

Weatherly: If you modulate from neighbor to enemy, you still do the same thing.

Let me tag onto that. I am all for people becoming proficient in group dynamics and conflict management in church leadership and other settings. There’s a lot to be learned from a collective wisdom there. But what we’re doing in conflict situations is challenging people and challenging ourselves with honesty about ourselves. Live out the reality of who Christ is, who God is.

This isn’t easy. I can domesticate the problem if I can reduce it to technique and negotiation. I don’t have to confront my own darkness, my own selfishness, my own failure if I can put this over in a bounded pasture of management technique. Again, I am 100 percent for those kinds of things, but I have to pursue them with a gospel reality of mind. The nasty thing is, it continues to expose my own failure.

Cachiaras: I feel this issue is everywhere. Every decision, in leadership and in life, is informed by this kind of thinking.

Examples: The culture we’re seeking as we lead our staff. Our decisions about how church is supposed to look. Our theology leads us to keep church from looking like just another corporate enterprise.

Consider staff meetings. Our theology prods us to do the hard work of trying to create community where there’s fun and relationships and praying for each other. Our theology changes the way we structure staff meetings, what’s on the agenda, and how much time we spend before we get down to business.

There are tons of theological conclusions behind everything about the weekend worship service—from the time we walk in to why we think we’re there. Who is it for? Is it a show, is it a performance, or is it for an audience of one? What’s the centerpiece of worship? Is it Communion, is it the song service, is it the Word?

If we really have a theology of incarnation, what does that mean if we also have a person on a remote screen?

Is corporate worship primarily an experience of transcendence where we come in and God is high and lifted up? (See Isaiah 6:5, which essentially says, “I am undone before our holy God.”) Or is it primarily an experience of immanence where God is close as a brother in our presence? Do we have mystery or do we have everything buttoned down?

Whom are we preaching to? Are we preaching to the lost? Is it mostly evangelistic, or are we preaching to the saved and are we teaching? What is the weekend gathering supposed to be accomplishing?

Whether we think ahead or not, actually, we all are answering these questions. The answers are seen in the songs we sing and the way we conduct ourselves in worship.

I think about the time we made the decision to move from adult Sunday school to small groups. It was one part pragmatic, because we were probably going to eventually run out of room and couldn’t afford to keep buying new buildings and paying for classrooms. It was theological, because we thought the best of what we could envision for a Christian community would probably not happen in an hour in a Sunday school classroom. We needed more time and we needed more space; we needed the setting of a home.

We already owned those homes. And we thought meeting in those homes was closer to what it looked like in Acts. So we made a decision, a theological decision, even though it sounded like a practical one. We didn’t want God to be the Sunday experience. We wanted God to be all week long, so we thought it’d be better to have something happening on Wednesdays and Thursdays in homes and in businesses.

We hired a storyteller. We began to think, You know, I think we’ve been looking at the Bible a little bit too piecemeal, and it really is a story. We define our meaning in God’s story, and so when you can tell more stories, you can help people find how their story is a metanarrative of what God’s doing.

Our part-time storyteller captures, collects, and catalogues these stories. She helps us retell them better, because we think the telling of stories is so vital to people understanding who they are in God. It was just a nuts and bolts, practical thing, but a huge help. But it’s also been shaped by some theological decisions we made.

I think church leaders who are thoughtful and are engaging in meaningful ways with their context are theologians, whether they want to be or not. It’s worth doing that in the community with others who are trying to help us think through issues together. What are you thinking about as you make these decisions?

Dicken: An example from my life: Like most of us, I have a cup of coffee in the mornings. I’ve begun trying to think about, to be mindful of, what kind of coffee I’m buying to make sure it’s fairly traded. I want to make sure I’m not participating in the exploitation of human beings and children on the other side of the world.

That, to me, is a theological decision. Yes, it’s a justice decision. Yes, it’s an activism decision. For me as a Christian person, it’s a theological decision as well. Even something as simple as morning coffee can be a theological thing.

Jones: In classical spiritual direction there are three questions that collide. Frank’s example is an illustration of this. The first question is, “Who is God?” The second question is, “Who am I in light of who he is?” The third question is, “How is he showing up here—what is he doing, what does he want?”

Cachiaras: I was inspired by a family in our church that is moving from a house in a nice neighborhood to one most of us would describe as a neighborhood not as nice. They’re doing this in response to their answers to these three questions in terms of who they believe God is and their identity in him as missionaries. They want to be closer to a campus where we have a community center. They want to be a part of that action. They want to have neighbors they can pour into and love on in a deeper way.

They’re selling their home and moving into an area that a lot of people would say is less desirable, but for them it’s a God-directed move.

The thought occurs to me that as each individual thinks theologically, one person’s thinking theologically may lead her to some decisions different from decisions by another person who is also thinking theologically. This is true even though there’s one God and he is constant and unchangeable.

For example, a church could probably make a theological basis for expanding adult Sunday school. Or not every worship leader who’s thinking theologically will agree with other worship ministers about what that service ought to look like or what the volume of the music ought to be, and so forth.

Am I barking up a wrong tree here in the minds of you fellows?

Weatherly: No, I think that’s a good tree. In many ways we’re talking about how we’re compelled by the realization that we serve a God who is invading our world and transforming the evil we had created. This makes us acutely aware that we have to examine everything about ourselves and what we do. That doesn’t become paralysis, but it means we’re moving forward in all areas. We are going to experience differences there in the way we do that.

But as we do that in community and rub up against each other, we’re compelled to love one another, and out of that to listen and respect each other. That continues the process of growing self-awareness, self-examination, and awareness of our culture and gives us the ability to continue to transform that culture in a significant way. It’s a cliché to say it’s not a destination but a journey, but that’s very much what we’re talking about.

Cachiaras: We really need each other. We need different voices from within the church to say, “What about this? Have we missed something?” I think there are many blind spots and sometimes I feel like, Good grief, how did I miss that?

Race is one example. Martin Luther King’s dream was theologically motivated.

Another is megachurches and their unintended consequences.

Global mission is another, and the way the pendulum swings between Word and social gospel; and now people are theologically saying, “Hey, it’s both, isn’t it? It’s Word and deed.”

Think of the environment. Somehow we thought it was a liberal deal to be a tree-hugging goofball who cares about the environment. But maybe that should have been our thing all along, right? Creator God gave us the care for the creation so that it even matters what cup of coffee Frank drinks.

All of this might seem a little bit overwhelming or burdensome or restrictive to believe I must think about my morning cup of coffee and my exercise routine, and where I’m going to eat out on Saturday night—all through the lens of, “What does God think about this?”

How can this be a liberating pursuit and a fulfilling pursuit rather than just a burdensome one?

Jones: So much of our Jesus-following life is marked by baby steps. They’re not these oceanic, gigantic movements toward maturity, but they’re tiny and sometimes they can’t be calculated.

Whoever reads this interview might be tempted to say, “I can never get to that place where I am consistently and persistently thinking theologically,” but it can be done. Decades ago, while I was living as a prodigal, someone gave me Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps. It got me moving in the right direction even though I now know there are some problems with that “What would Jesus do?” approach.

Weatherly: The mercy of God in Christ gives me the freedom to pursue this without fear because I can take baby steps and be confident. If it weren’t for understanding that the grace of God makes me his now and forever, and puts me on this road to the realization of God’s purpose in the world, I couldn’t do it. But when I fully grasp the reality of God’s grace, mercy, and love, I am liberated to keep pursuing him.

Dicken: In this conversation we’ve come back time and time again to Scripture. Many people do read their Bibles every day. One of my colleagues says this much more eloquently than I do. He says, “Theology is simply sustained reflection on Scripture.”

Jones: I’d give that a hearty amen. A steady, loving, long meditation on what God has already revealed about himself in Scripture has enormous possibilities. Today, with all our wonderful ways of getting Word intake, we can have the Word pour over us, even from our smartphones.

Cachiaras: I would encourage all of us as disciples of Jesus to help others learn to think through the lens that God has given us in his Word. The more we do that and model it and help each other on those baby steps, the more the church itself is formed.

We know some who would say, “I want to be a Jesus follower, but I really just want to go to a movie and let my brain absorb whatever that worldview is, and not be reflective and not worry about it. I want to give $25 a year and tell myself I’m generous. I don’t want to actually have to forgive my mother. You mean I have to think about how I act like a jerk on Facebook, really?”

The answer is yes.

That’s part of the baby steps, you know? To confront my family’s racism; to decide, when someone else says porn is OK, maybe it’s not. Inviting people on that journey of learning to see my life through the lens of who I am in Christ is going to mean some forward movement. And it may be difficult.

But it’s not like you’re framing it as, “Oh, I have to go to seminary and think about some theological things all the time and put on my thinker hat now.” It’s a matter of growing.

Yes, it can be a little difficult. It’s hard for me. I think it’s hard for everyone, but what feels hard is a light burden. As Jon said, the beautiful mercy of God gives me freedom. But you can’t get there without letting go of some other pursuits that sometimes occupy us.

Mark A. Taylor is publisher and editor of CHRISTIAN STANDARD.

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