I’m more and more convinced that pastoral ministry should operate on a charitable supposition.
What I mean is that we ought to try put the best construction on the things people say — whether they’re saying that they understand and agree to what they’re promising when they bring their kid to be baptised or expressing the aspiration of their heart as they sing words like ‘Forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand’.
In Knots Untied (Chapter 7), J. C. Ryle helpfully applies this principle to the case of the strong declaration in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Infant Baptism service, ‘Seeing now that this child is regenerate…’
At heart this is about leaving judgement to God. And it feels right on! My only hesitation — which I’m still not quite sure what to do with — arises with the application Paul seems to make of this principle. In 1 Cor 4, Paul warns against pronouncing judgement ‘before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart’ (v 5).
So far so Anglican… But within a chapter Paul is laying down some pretty severe church discipline, insisting (in no uncertain terms) that Christians must not remain in fellowship ‘with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber’ because ‘Is it not those inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you‘ (1 Cor 5.11-12).
Whoa! How does that square with Ryle’s charitable supposition?
Back to the issue of becoming churches of irresistible influence in our communities…
Launching into some bridge building may sound great. Surely we’ve got to develop connections in a manner much like cross-cultural missionaries often try to.
But things will probably start getting messy when we do. Physical bridges produce changes in island life — disruptions, more ‘foreigners’ visiting or even moving in. Why shouldn’t bridges of good works do the same?
If we’re not going to back out — through fear of change or the unknown — then we’re going to need to prepare ourselves.
The key is to vigorously implement the kind of attitude Jesus displayed towards sinners. Meet them with grace. Accept them wherever they’re at — whatever sin or doubt or fear they’re struggling with. But don’t leave them to wallow. Walk with them towards transformation and maturity in Christ.
I want to suggest two points of departure for this:
- Get used to setting (and continually reinforcing) the expectation that the church is about growth and spiritual transformation. In other words, move beyond just talking to ourselves about love and transformation — preaching, quite literally, to the converted. And start prayerfully and proactively living it.
- On the flip side, teach the fact that it’s OK to be part of church if you don’t ‘have it all together’ — and lead by example. We may talk a lot about growth and transformation. But there’s no biblical warrant for expecting uninterrupted linear progress. Christian growth is a matter of struggle between the Spirit and the flesh (cf. Gal 5.16-26).
The challenge, of course, is to make all this concrete!